"Cats" Review: A Bad Musical Adapted Into a Worse Movie
Cats is a strange beast to begin with, but the combination of strange CGI makes the translation from stage to screen even worse.
Director: Tom Hooper
Summary: A tribe of cats called the Jellicles must decide yearly which one will ascend to the Heaviside Layer and come back to a new Jellicle life.
Full Disclosure: I have seen Cats live and on stage. I saw it while I was visiting London in 2001 and disliked it immediately despite loving Les Miserables which I saw during the same trip.
If there is one thing that tends to shoot movies in the foot it is failing to understand the nature of adaptation. We do not watch a movie the same way we read a book or watch a play or a TV show or even a comic book. They are all different, and when adaptations fail it usually comes down to failing to understand that nature of adaptation. There are plenty of musicals with beautiful stories that can easily be translated from stage to screen. Cats never has and never will be one of those musicals. There isn't much of a story. Instead, it is a bunch of cats introducing themselves and singing until one of them dies. With a musical on stage, the spectacle of live theater can [almost] excuse that, but a movie needs more to hold onto. There is nothing for the movie adaptation of Cats to hold onto.
When news broke out of CinemaCon this year that all of the singers and dancers in Cats were going to be CGI enhanced to look more like actual cats several eyebrows were raised. It always seemed like part of the appeal of the musical was that it was obviously a bunch of people running around in spandex and make-up — so you, the audience, could focus on the songs and the dancing which is why we're all here. The various CGI cats are extremely weird to look at and the graphics are all over the place. Sometimes they look okay but it's impossible to focus on the dancing or the singing when the ears and tails keep twitching and moving around. Francesca Hayward is a beautiful dancer but anytime you start to focus on her dancing, a CGI tail moves and ears twitch and you're distracted. There is a moment where poor Idris Elba's face looks like it's floating in mid-air because the CGI is so off.
Does anyone remember how we gave an Oscar to Anne Hathaway for singing "I Dreamed a Dream" in Les Miserables while ugly crying? Director Tom Hooper, who directed Les Miserables, certainly does because he tells Jennifer Hudson to do the same thing with the only good songs in Cats. Hudson is a fantastic singer and she has the pipes to do a truly stunning rendition of "Memory", but instead, we can barely hear her sing as she over-emotes throughout the entire thing. Hudson will no doubt do some live performances of this song during the awards season and they will probably be better because she is able to sing instead of just crying. That's ignoring that the CGI makes her tears and runny nose look incredibly weird.
Hooper is directing yet another musical and much like Les Miserables, he decided that the only way to shoot said musical was to zoom in on the singer's faces and then hold the camera there the entire time. There might be a few shot-reverse shots thrown in there but it's all front-facing views of people singing which is incredibly boring to watch as an audience member. It is once again showing a lack of understanding of what adaptation is. On stage, the lights change and you look at the person doing the solo. That is not the same as watching someone perform in a movie. There is even a fundamental difference between watching a recorded version of a stage show and watching a stage show; they are different forms of media and Hooper is trying to emulate the feeling of the stage but you can't. You don't watch movies the same way you watch stage productions and no amount of pointing the camera at someone's face while they sing can change that.
What about fans of the musical? Will they enjoy seeing this movie? Probably not, since Cats is such a weird production to start with that you need to be on its level to enjoy it. This new movie adaptation takes away all of the fun parts of the stage production. The singing and dancing, which are what we're here for, seem almost secondary to set design and making all of the actors look like they are wearing fur bodysuits. You are here for the music but everyone involved with this version of Cats seems to view the music as secondary.
Cats is the kind of musical that you either love or you hate. For people who hate the musical, this is not going to convince you to change your mind. For people who love the musical, you've probably seen all of this done so much better live on stage. There are plenty of cast recordings out there with better singers and better versions of these songs. There are much better things to do with your time that isn't so inherently creepy.