Review: Cats – Cosmic horror in musical form

YOU KNOW what a cat is. A cat is a sleek, elegant creature that licks itself and bounds across its world in apathetic fashion. It preens. It mewls. It doesn’t know whether it wants to be in or out. It bats at dangly things. It will not miss you when you die. You know what a cat is. Now, imagine that cat as an anthropomorphic cosmic horror that yearns for death via hot air balloon, and you have Cats. Plural. Endless legions of infernal computer-generated ‘cats’, scuttling across the human-free landscape of an outsized London, yearning for death.

Cats is only the latest in a rapidly-increasing string of all-time box-office bombs, but it certainly stakes a claim to being the most fascinatingly misguided. The original stage-show, itself ‘adapted’ from a collection of T. S. Eliot poems, is notoriously plot-less and scattershot, relying more on dazzling choreography and powerful vocal performances than pure narrative. That hasn’t stopped it from becoming one of the most successful stage shows of all-time, embedding itself into the popular consciousness through sheer force of will. With Les Misérables director Tom Hooper at the helm, the success of a film adaptation would seem assured.

Then the trailer hit, and the world convulsed. Bipedal cat creatures with human faces, some wearing fur coats, cavorted across the screen to the horror of millions, their CG features uncanny and distressingly high-definition. Clearly stung by the backlash, Hooper hunkered down and, in his own words, worked seven days a week from August through to a single day before its late December release, frantically touching up visual effects and wondering why the fuck the studio(s) decided to pit it against Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.

Little surprise that the ‘finished’ product is such an obvious disaster – the kind that embarrasses household names and stalls the careers of promising newcomers – and it’s apparent from the off, as Victoria (Francesca Hayward) is deposited into the auspices of the ‘Jellicle’ cats. For the rest of the film, this baffling tribe of humanoid screamers attempt to induct her into their insidious cult by singing, relentlessly, at her perpetually open mouth. This is the structure for the entire run-time. It is overwhelming.

In other hands this may have been forgiveable, were the film capable of matching the ferocious energy of the stage productions. This is not the case; save for a legitimately compelling tap-dancing sequence lead by Skimbleshanks (Steven McRae), the action is hamstrung by constant cuts and odd framing, never reaching the heights it could well have done. Moreover, the singing, with scant exception, is simply not up to snuff, often reduced to little more than desperate bellows beneath an overbearing score.

This is to say nothing of the visual aesthetic, which attempts to emulate the stage-light glare of its forebear by blanketing the frame in gaudy amber, lending the film a sickly glow that does nothing to enhance the ‘digital fur technology’ of our feline friends. The proportions of the cats are in constant flux, and while this is done in an attempt to imbue a sense of magical realism to the production, the deftness of touch required to pull that off effectively is glaringly absent.

Hooper is clearly more comfortable with a more methodical pace and understated cinematography, and it’s in these precious few moments of levity where the film shines. Victoria briefly ceases to be a squash-and-stretch cipher for ‘Beautiful Ghosts’, written specifically for the film by Taylor Swift and Andrew Lloyd Webber, and it proves to be one of the handful of highlights. Jennifer Hudson’s rendition of ‘Memory’, the original show’s most famous song, is also a powerful performance, unencumbered by Cronenbergian body-horror. Not coincidentally, these are the closest to eliciting emotions other than shock and terror.

Leave that to Rebel Wilson peeling off her skin and devouring cockroaches. Leave that to James Corden terrorising a group of horrifying mouse-children. Leave that to Taylor Swift spilling catnip and jiggles all over the place. In another film these instances would only be curious oddities, but Cats is so consistently bizarre that they begin to blend together, forming a melange of strangeness that quickly becomes routine. The aforementioned moments of stillness are the only ones to stand out as a result, but these only serve to give the audience time to ask: “What the fuck is actually happening?”

The narrative superfluity of the original Cats show is rendered moot because your attention is fixed on the performance itself. It doesn’t really matter what a Heaviside Layer is, or what the difference between a Jellicle Cat and a regular cat is when talented men and women are doing things with their bodies that no one should be capable of doing. Despite the increased scope of a cinematic production, the film feels artificial and bound to a stage, even with the inexplicable teleportations and self-mutilation.

The greatest failure of Cats is its inability to engage you with the material it presents. At no point is the audience fully invested in the narrative, or even the choreography; they are constantly yanked out of the illusion by a bone-headed decision or seven, never allowed to rest on their haunches in the knowledge that what they’re watching is sane and was made by sane people. (So sane, in fact, they patched the thing in a hitherto unprecedented move.)

Cats is the kind of omnishambles that will make nervous producers rethink the current rejuvenation of big-budget musicals. In the years to come, it will likely be mentioned in the same breath as Catwoman (ha) and Showgirls in what-the-fuck-were-they-thinking terms, but it’s nowhere near as entertaining as either. Regardless, Cats is a glorious, fascinating disaster that stands out in an era of increasingly common box-office busts. Not unlike its namesake animal friend, it is both beautiful and baffling, and, if you asked it, it would probably want you dead.

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