I don’t like to use the word flawed when talking about movies, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. Cats is deeply, deeply flawed. It’s the sort of flawed that makes the movie’s mere existence a flabbergasting paradox, leaving one with questions about the layers and layers Tom Hooper had to work through to get the $95 million to produce and release such a broken, ill-conceived piece of cinema. He convinced studio executives, producers, production designers, and visual effects supervisors that his idea was a good one, and it was bad from the start.
Musical theater is, let’s face it, a niche medium. The biggest show last year, The Great White Way, was attended by 350,000 people total throughout the year. By comparison, roughly 100,000,000 people saw Avengers Endgame in theaters in 2019. On top of that, musical theater is a vastly different medium from cinema. What can work as spectacle in a closed theater won’t necessarily work as spectacle on a movie screen. I can imagine the effect a live performance of Cats would have on the musical theater lovers of the world. The sights and sounds of people dressed up as cats running up and down the aisle and swinging around in front of them is probably rather enticing. I don’t really think it would work on me personally, but I sort of get it.
That doesn’t mean that it will translate to cinema where we’ve been inundated with spectacular sights for decades. People looking like cats and singing showtunes is mundane when compared to the worlds of Pandora or Middle-Earth. There’s no spectacle here in comparison to what we’re used to. That’s really just looking at the idea generically, though. In practical reality, Tom Hooper took the exact wrong approach to the movie’s visual effects.
The stories of the visual artists working 90 hour weeks and sleeping under their desks to finish the complete film’s special effects in just four months are on the IMDb trivia page, and the quick work is exceedingly evident on screen. There’s almost never a single shot where the movement of the cats doesn’t look janky in some way. Arms move wrong. Whenever the cats dance, they seem to jump between frames. There are even copious moments where heads seem disconnected from bodies. Even the musical numbers, in particular the dancing, feels too smooth and then too jerky at the same time, invalidating what must have been very good work by the performers with a bad layer of digital paint that’s impossible to unsee. Every character on screen for the entire one-hundred minute runtime falls firmly in the Uncanny Valley and never escapes it. Every minute of this movie feels wrong just looking at it, and that’s the biggest source of audiences’ problems with the film. Someone, at some point, should have made Hooper use practical costumes and makeup.
Here’s the thing, though, the story underneath, even if they had fixed the special effects, is pretty much non-existent. It’s spectacle designed for musical theater, and all it is amounts to a series of songs of different cats singing about themselves in a row. There’s no real story, and the enjoyment factor of the audience entirely hinges on their desire to hear music. It reminded me of Francis Ford Coppola’s Cotton Club where the point was the recreation of the physical space and the music that went with it. There was a story, but it was unconvincing and unimportant. Coppola was only interested in the music. Cats is similar, except that’s the source material. It’s a revue. There’s no real story to be had. It’s almost just a series of music videos.
The little story that is there amounts to a cat being dumped in an alley in London and meeting a weird society of cats on the Jelical night where one gets chosen to be sent into the sky and reborn into a new life. The main character, Victoria, wanders through the society, listening to each one sing about themselves before moving on to the next. In the midst of this is Macavity, a bad cat that is trying to cheat his way into being chosen (why? I dunno…these aren’t characters in any real sense of the word). Eventually, he kidnaps Deuteronomy, the one who makes the choice, and Victoria has to convince the magical cat to make Deuteronomy reappear before introducing Grizabella and getting her chosen…It’s nonsense. Grizabella has the number “Memory” that everyone remembers, but because Grizabella isn’t really a character, instead just a single character trait that requires a soulful singing of a single song. I can fully see a certain segment of the population weeping bitterly at the soulful rendition, but narratively Grizabella is a non-entity, so her emotional impact is limited.
This movie should never have been made. I could imagine it working as a fully animated film with cats that look like, you know, cats (like Spielberg originally tried to do when he had a hand drawn animated division decades ago, hence Amblin being a production company on the film). The story is theatrical and bare, so having it exist in this weird middle space between CGI spectacle, theatrical reproduction, and cinema disaster does it no favors. It takes an idea that should have never made it to the big screen and completely undermines it even more. This is “Springtime for Hitler” made for real. A movie so bad that the tax man won’t look too closely at the books. I will say, though, that Jennifer Hudson does give a soulful performance as Grizabella.