Let’s get this out of the way from the off; Cats is quite possibly the worst film I have ever seen in a cinema. I shall explain my rationale for such a statement in due course but basically it fails on every single level.
The release of the trailer for Cats brought a collective shock. Shots of high profile actors with completely ineffective CGI triggered global ridicule. Director Tom Hooper kept working right up until the very last moment to try and salvage the picture. Unfortunately, his efforts have been in vain.
A decision was made to realise actors in cat form using computer generated fur technology. It does not work. Faces are merely transplanted onto an artificial frame. As a result every shot leaves the viewer perplexed, possibly horrified but crucially distracted. It is a significant stumbling block and the fact that at no point senior creative people involved in the production didn’t recognise that the technology had failed and would sink the box office takings is astonishing.
The major issue is that there is no blending of the performers facial features and the artificial feline creation. In the original West End production the makeup was intended to conceal the human face and make it appear more feline. It wasn’t entirely effective but it gave you an idea. For this movie they simply haven’t bothered with any makeup which makes the differentiation between the real actor and the CGI facade all the more stark and jarring.
Although there is seemingly no need for the costume department to become involved given the reliance on the computer, some characters do have costumes. For example, Dame Judi Dench and Idris Elba wear fur coats. Fair enough if this is part of the look for the character, consistent with the CG fur but then those coats are removed. Elba for instance appears without his outer garment in one scene which just makes it look like his character is completely naked. Except for CGI fur of course. It is utterly bizarre. Other cats are seen wearing shoes, helpful when Skimbleshanks the railway cat tap dances across screen but it is impossible not to ponder, “why are these cats wearing shoes?”
Additionally, the choreography in terms of the physical performance is inconsistent. At one point Jennifer Hudson crawls away on all fours, like a cat. Not long later she walks in like a bipedal mammal. Similarly, seeing Dame Judi Dench reclining in her basket like Kate Winslet posing for her drawing in ‘Titanic’ seems rather undignified. So this creates further inconsistency. Characters behaving like cats one minute, nuzzling each other affectionately then dancing superbly in the next. We know these are human beings pretending to be cats but be consistent with how they are presented and you might convince viewers that you’ve actually put some thought into all this. The choreographed dance numbers are strong but the direction of them leaves a lot to be desired.
Tom Hooper’s style of directing is typically tight and mid-shot to get up close in order to capture the emotions of his performers. That makes sense for Jennifer Hudson performing ‘Memory’ (more of that later), but isn’t as effective for the big dance numbers with multiple performers. When Hooper does push the camera wide it exposes yet another flaw in this doomed production. The set design, specifically the scale, is all over the place. There are certain shots where the cats look tiny in the environment, such as on the railway rails, and in others, unsurprisingly, they look human size.
Another major issue with the film stems from the source material and should’ve been expected. There isn’t really a plot to Cats. Originally developed as musical accompaniments to a series of T. S. Eliot poems it remains just that. A series of songs about individual cats and eventually one of them will pass on to the Heaviside Layer in some sort of implied mercy killing. This group of Jellicle cats gather at the Jellicle Ball to make the Jellicle choice. The term Jellicle comes from the original T. S. Eliot poem describing a specific type of nocturnal black and white cat. But if all the cats looked the same it wouldn’t be that appealing visually so that uniformity is abandoned. Yet the term Jellicle remains. It is nonsense but over the years the songs in particular have connected with audiences. Not least the show’s big hit ‘Memory’.
The ‘Memory’ moment is appropriately big. So highly anticipated was it that it was given prominence in that much maligned trailer. Jennifer Hudson, who won an Academy Award with her debut performance in ‘Dreamgirls’, has been brought in to deliver the song. She performs it well but even if you get beyond the CGI distraction there’s another one. I’m not sure if Hudson recorded the scene whilst suffering a heavy cold but the fluid streaming out of her nose completely takes you out of the moment. Elaine Paige need not worry. Her version of ‘Memory’ will remain the song’s pinnacle.
Taylor Swift, a self-confessed cat lady, fully embraces her brief role. Although the false English accent is toe-curling, she is probably the highlight. Swift and Jason Derulo are arena performers and unsurprisingly deliver the best moments in the film, knowing how to convey a song to thousands in an audience rather than delivering a performance to camera. Conversely, James Corden and Rebel Wilson doing yet more ‘chubby comedy’ is as embarrassing as it is unfunny. Both are better than this. More traditional stage actors, Dame Judi Dench and Sir Ian McKellen bring gravitas but lack the dynamism, amongst other things, that this version of Cats really needs. Francesca Hayward as Victoria is clearly a talent, you’d expect that from a Principal ballerina at The Royal Ballet, but the decision to have her play a white cat is bordering on the abhorrent and possibly the biggest sin of the entire film.
Overall, Cats is horribly and catastrophically executed. Without doubt one of the worst things ever to be released into cinemas. On every technical level it fails spectacularly. No wonder it stands to lose A LOT of money.