Tom Hooper’s latest musical extravaganza, Cats, is among the memorable films of 2019, whether we like it or not, due to how plainly weird and objectively bad it is. Still, it’s not an unfixable mess. Cats could have been a genuinely fun time at the movies and given you’re adapting one of the greatest musicals ever, it shouldn’t be hard to succeed at that. Right?
If you’re not familiar with the story, the protagonist of Cats is Victoria (Francesca Hayward), a cat who is thrown onto the street and stumbles into the Jellicle cats during the most important night of the year. The cats have a ball where each one can show off their dancing and singing skills and their leader Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) picks one cat at the end who deserves to move onto the Heaviside Layer and come back to a new Jellicle life. Basically, the price is reincarnation. Among our contestants, all of whom we witness from Victoria’s perspective, are Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo), Skimbleshanks (Steven McRae) and Bustopher Jones (James Corden). There is also an evil cat Macavity (Idris Elba), who desperately wants to win and with the help of Bombalurina (Taylor Swift) will do anything to achieve his goal.
Ever since we got our first look at this thing, all the talk was about the CGI cat humanoids and for a good reason. The director talked about new technologies developed, making Cats seem like a musical version of Avatar. Cats of Cats should have looked like real life cats, possibly close to what Jon Favreau has been doing with his films in the past years. Instead, we got humans with cat-like features (or cats with human-like features, it’s hard to tell), where the line between the actor and their character is never fully blurred. Sure, they have whiskers and little ears and are covered in fur, but they also have very human feet, hands and faces. One thing they’re lacking – genitalia; but please don’t take this as a feedback which will produce an X-rated cut of Cats where we’ll have to suffer Jason Derulo’s penis.
It’s truly an uncanny mix, one which makes me wonder why didn’t Cats use costumes, much like its theatrical predecessor. With a budget of 95$ million, they could have afforded some beautiful costume work. Sure, that way it would feel more like a stage play, but the end result would be no doubt better, because sometimes you really don’t need cutting edge CGI (especially if it’s done wrong) to give your characters life.
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical isn’t so popular in the first place because of the story, but rather due to the borderline insane choreography, with huge numbers of performers all over the stage. It works when you’re sitting there, watching it unfold in three dimensions. An entirely different experience is seeing the same choreography in a film format, where the dancing is edited and guides your eye, instead of letting you absorb the entire thing.
Musicals of the past, as well as the recent La La Land, proved that letting your dance numbers play out in long takes only adds to your film. Cats cuts way too much during certain parts, lessening their impact. Setting it up in a way that the entire choreography could be seen from one point and limiting edits won’t save this film, but it would make the performances more lively and engaging to watch.
The film version of Cats follows its predecessor very closely in terms of story and while it may not seem that way as a live performance, it’s hard to shake the feeling that this simply won’t ever end when sitting down with the film. The two hours go by excruciatingly slowly, and the highly predictable structure doesn’t help. Every scene in Cats plays out by introducing a new cat at the start, the cat singing a song about itself and then Veronica going somewhere else and meeting a new cat, upon which the cycle repeats. Oh, and Macavity pops in occasionally.
Not every cat had to be in this version and the film could have been a 90 minute breeze with only 5-6 of such scenes, instead of at least 15 that are actually present. And if you insist on keeping all the numbers from the original, at least do them differently. Spice it up in a way that’s fun and makes each cat feel distinct.
Speaking of our protagonist, played by a talented ballet dancer Francesca Hayward. She isn’t a character. Veronica is merely a plot device, another member of the audience in the mostly-empty theatres playing Cats, who’s job is to tie the film up in some reasonable way. Veronica is the character who takes us from scene to scene, and that’s still an upgrade from the original version. In Cats (2019), she at least gets her own song, even if it doesn’t enrich the plot in any way.
To put it plainly: give Veronica more to do. Make her a character. Give her some form of agency. She deserves to be a part of the story and if it can’t be done, then just have any one of the Jellicle cats – Munkustrap for example – be the guide on our journey through this story.
Making a film means making thousands of decisions in a day, and sometimes they are the wrong ones and things don’t work out. I don’t hate Cats. Quite the opposite, with a bunch of friends it can be a wildly fun ride. However, it is a deeply flawed film, one which could have been better. Does it mean we need a Cats remake in the (foreseeable) future? Absolutely not. But it is applicable advice when someone decides it’s time to make a film version of, say, Webber’s Starlight Express, the roller-skating musical about trains.