“You will never be my jellicle choice!”
This is this and that is that – that is how you address a misguided musical film adaptation.
The new Cats film means a lot to a lot of different people. To the director Tom Hooper, its a commentary on the dangers of tribalism – which despite Hooper’s complaints to the movie’s icy reception, does come through somewhat; to fans of the musical, its a new toy we only wanted because other kids were getting something, only to find out we never really wanted it in the first place; to film critics, its a hallucinogenic, oddly-shot nightmare that reminds you of what purgatory might look like; and to everyone else it is a charming, little-bit-weird movie about people dancing in CG costumes.
So what is Cats exactly? Or perhaps, we could ask “what is a shitticle movie?”
Cats began as Old Possums Book of Practical Cats, a book of poems published in 1939 by children’s author T.S. Eliot. The poem collection was then adapted into a stage musical in 1980. I personally watched a recorded version (made in 1998) as a kid, which featured Elaine Page as Grizzabella. She is seriously good in that role, and if you want a true experience of what Cats should be like, I’d watch that.
In fact, that’s got to be one of the biggest problems I have with the new film. I’m not 100% against remakes, but we already had a perfectly good film-like version of Cats. The 1998 version isn’t just filmed statically from the front of the stage: it has dynamic camera angles, it zooms in to the actor’s faces. Besides Andrew Lloyd Webber and Taylor Swift’s Beautiful Ghosts, which is quite pleasant if not altogether harmonious with everything else, all Hooper’s version brings us that is new is some dodgy visuals and some cringey added sound bites. This has become a uncomfortable trend in recent cinema with Disney’s insistence on “remaking” all of its old films. The old ones are beautiful, the old ones are pure. If you can’t add anything of meaning to re-telling them, don’t do it!
The film features most of the songs from Cats – I noticed a lack of The Awful Battle of the Pekes and the Pollicles, what? Did that one not fit into your interpretation of the plot, Hooper, so you thought you’d just leave it out? – and follows Andrew Lloyd Webber’s original plot way too closely. The plot of the film is that Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) has collected all of the cats together at the Jellicle Ball, where she will choose a cat to ascend to the Heavyside Layer (cat heaven) and be reborn in a new life.
Now look, this was the plot of the stage musical. But it wasn’t really the focus. It was more a bunch of character studies with an undercurrent theme of mortality if anything. The cats in the stage version, as awkwardly translated in the film, weren’t all performing songs about their names because they were trying to be candidates to die – ascend to heaven, whatever – they were just there. They were just singing to tell fun little nonsense stories about themselves. On stage, it is completely ok to be this vague – the audience is there to see a performance. Its like a ballet, or a dance recital – there doesn’t need to be anything much behind it, you can just enjoy the lights, the movement and the feelings you get from watching it. Film can do that too, of course, but Hooper plays it dead straight, which really doesn’t do it any favours. Some material isn’t designed for a high-budget blockbuster.
On top of that, Hooper has tried to build this undertone of political commentary into it, like its fucking Les Mis or something. The “main cat”, Victoria (played by Francesca Hayward) is abandoned as a pretty, white innocent cat. She is thrown into the midst of the Jellicle cats, who all gather around and almost threateningly explain what a Jellicle cat is and how the cats get their name. They pull her around, going through each introduction song like an initiation ceremony where she tentatively asks “why are you wanting to be a candidate to go to the heavyside layer” and they give half-assed answers. As she goers deeper and deeper into this cult, she starts to get spots and flecks on her coat, I suppose showing how her innocence is lost as she is indoctrinated – ending in Judi Dench telling her “it looks like you are now a Jellicle cat”. I mean, kudos to him for trying to add something in – it might have worked if it was some other material – but no. Just stop making it so damned serious.
I’ve only really touched on the CGI in this film. Its pretty awful. Made me say “oh no” a couple of times. But, its not something they could have fixed. It was just a bad concept from the start. The humour is also awkward – I hate the Rebel Wilson’s section with a passion. James Corden comes off a little better when he is singing, but when the movie pauses for the stupid trailer jokes, the performance dies and withers like an unattended and under-watered plant. Idris Elba was just more than a little embarrassing with yet another unnecessary plotline. The only big name that comes out of it with a little decorum is Ian McKellen because he plays Gus’s song pretty well.
If you must make something out of Cats, go 2D animation. Go Aristocats on our asses. Make it sweetly-sad, make it funny and make it a big-spectacle character study. Don’t over-write it and piss on what was good with weak jokes to try and keep the kids entertained.
Reviewed by Becca