VOD film review: Cats (2019)
Ivan Radford | On 03, Jun 2020
Director: Tom Hooper
Cast: Francesca Hayward, James Corden, Rebel Wilson, Idris Elba, Taylor Swift, Ian McKellen, Judi Dench
Watch Cats online in the UK: Sky Cinema / NOW / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store / CHILI
Cats is not a musical famed for its plot. Based on a poetry collection by TS Eliot (Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats), it’s a two-hour showcase of acrobatics and ear-worming showtunes, which just happens to feature some people in cat costumes. What are these cats doing? Something to do with choosing which one of them will ascend to the “Heaviside Layer” and be reborn, but that doesn’t actually matter: really, the cats are gathering to perform an array of song and dance numbers by unseen master of ceremonies Andrew Lloyd-Webber, while leaping about all over the place – and, in the theatre, into the audience to boot.
The film attempts to introduce some semblance of story, by switching the focus to background character Victoria (Francesca Hayward), the new cat in town who is abandoned in an alley in the West End. But even with a new song, penned by Lloyd-Webber and Taylor Swift, she gets little more to do than stand about with her mouth agape – and what’s meant to look like awe and amazement mainly comes across as horror and trauma. It’s like experiencing a waking nightmare after watching too many Felix adverts.
Victoria is whisked away to the Jellicle Ball, where all the Jellicle Cats (the name given to these all-singing, all-dancing felines) congregate to see who can impress the crowd. There’s Bustopher Jones, played by James Corden, an overweight tabby who wears shoes with white spats. There’s Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson), a former glamour puss who has been shunned by society. There’s Jennyanydots, played by Rebel Wilson, a lazy cat with secret nocturnal habits. And there are Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer, a pair of pranksters who wreak havoc around their expensive house. In between them all stands Macavity (Idris Elba), the mystery cat wanted by the police.
Each one gets their own choreographed set piece, which jumps from location to location. An alleyway of dustbins! A milk bar! A lavish mansion! A kitchen full of dancing mice and cockroaches! Where these sequences should impress with their movements and music tailored to each mog, Tom Hooper and his team make the strange decision to build each stage at 2.5-times their normal scale, making the whole thing look like Alice in Wonderland gone wrong – and instead of enjoying the catchy tunes, you get distracted by the unsettling, unnatural universe we’ve apparently been teleported to.
Those tuning in for the familiar star names will find no comfort there either, as the film uses mo-cap suits and digital effects to combine virtual, furry bodies with human faces – and the result is as horrifying as it sounds (even after Universal stumped up the cash to replace an early print of the film that contained an un-CGI-ed hand halfway through). Playing out like The Island of Dr. Moreau: The Broadway Musical, it’s a sea of uncanny eyes and sentient ears, all twitching in ways that leave you unable to stop staring.
Some of the creatures fare better than others, such as Taylor Swift’s Bombalurina, who delivers a musical number about Mcavity with knowing panache, but the moment we see Elba’s Macavity with no clothes on, the horror swiftly sets in again – and the less said about Ray Winstone’s Growltiger the better.
The result is something grotesquely unique and fascinatingly dull – a stunning error of judgement that repeatedly ups the folly with every fresh decision. Even with the entertaining (if unevenly performed) soundtrack to get you through the 110 minutes, this is the kind of filmmaking blunder that occurs once in a generation, and should almost be seen just for that.
Judi Dench and Ian McKellen are clearly having fun as veterans Old Deuteronomy and Gus the Theatre Cat – McKellen is the only one to actually “Meow” – but even they can’t make up for such mind-boggling sights as a group of cats dancing across a railway bridge or a Lion King-esque cats’ face forming in the clouds above. The moment they encounter anything resembling the real world, these human-cat hybrids emerge like mutants scurrying about in a post-apocalyptic London. Hooper’s camera, meanwhile, can’t stay still long enough to let things find a groove, turning up the neon pinks and blues until the whole thing becomes a lifeless affair – a serious achievement for a film so full of movement.
Cats is not a musical famed for its plot. It’s a variety show of ballet and heartfelt ballads. With a tangible, physical sense of spectacle, the result, on stage, was something fantastically impossible and enchantingly extravagant – a mesmerising, immersive event that left jaws hanging open. Almost 40 years on, Tom Hooper’s Cats also leaves a lasting impression, but for all the wrong reasons.
Cats is available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW, as part of an £11.99 NOW Cinema Membership subscription.