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Review: Cats (2019)

Cats (2019)

Directed by: Tom Hooper

Premise: An adaptation of the stage musical. The feline inhabitants of an alleyway introduce themselves to their new companion (Francesca Hayward). The cats prepare for their annual contest in which one of them is selected for a new life.

What Works: Sometimes stage shows adapted to film look flat and uncinematic, as though the moviemaking crew had just filmed a live performance. Filmmaker Tom Hooper brings an unusual cinematic style to Cats. As he did in 2012’s Les Miserables, Hooper applies filmmaking techniques that aren’t usually associated with the musical genre such as handheld camerawork and the use of close ups. The filmmakers earnestly try to make this material work for the silver screen and whatever its faults Cats is not lazy.

What Doesn’t: Cats is an adaptation and as a rule adaptations must stand on their own. It doesn’t matter what the source material did or did not do; filmmakers should alter the material as needed to make it work on film. Cats is, fundamentally, a cinematic version of the stage show and so this film was doomed from the word go. Like Disney’s remake of The Lion King, the feature film version of Cats is a lesson in the limits of live action cinema. Presenting human performers in cat costumes works on the stage (as it did for The Lion King Broadway show) but it looks ridiculous in a live action film (as it did in Disney’s 2019 remake of The Lion King). Traditional animation might have been a better way to film this story as it was with The Lion King. The other fundamental problem with Cats is the source material. It’s a stupid musical and there’s nothing to it; Cats is a facile exercise in style without substance. The primary audience for the Cats stage show is children but that’s no excuse. Younger audiences deserve better than this crap and there are plenty of plays, movies, and books geared for children that tell worthwhile stories. Inception is half of Cats’ problems. The other half is execution.  Victoria, the protagonist played by Francesca Hayward, is already a cypher of a character—she doesn’t actually do anything—but matters are made worse by the filmmaking style. The movie has no point of view and the action is not staged in a way that conveys the meaning of the scene. The framing and the frantic editing cloud the action. We can make out that the cats are dancing but there is no way to follow the action. The digital effects of Cats vary. A few of the effects are shoddy but more troubling are the inconsistencies in scale. The sets are oversized to give the impression of the world from the point of view of small mammals but the size of the cats shifts from one scene to the next. Like the visual effects, the musical performances of Cats vary dramatically. Some of them are good, namely Jennifer Hudson’s performance of “Memory,” but others are really terrible. Judi Dench and Ian McKellen are especially bad as Old Deuteronomy and Gus The Theatre Cat. Neither Dench nor McKellen can sing and their musical numbers are bland with the actors just standing or sitting and addressing a locked camera. 

Bottom Line: A film adaptation of Cats had inherent challenges due to its source material but the filmmakers do themselves no favors. The moviemakers combine superficial material with frantic filmmaking techniques and mediocre musical performances to craft a disaster. But Cats is also the kind of bizarre disaster that’s likely to attract a cult audience.

Episode: #782 (December 29, 2019)