There are spoilers abound in this review, so just be warned if you know nothing about the show or the movie and want to go in fresh!
It’s currently December 28th and I, like a lot of film bloggers and writers, am in the midst of compiling a dizzying list of the best movies of the decade. Still, even while tearing my hair out trying to rank and categorise, I find that writing a coherent piece of criticism about Cats is going to be my most challenging endeavour yet.
A little background information before we begin. I knew virtually nothing about Cats going in. I had only really heard the most famous song “Memory” performed by several outstanding vocalists, and I knew a few of the characters names from miscellaneous trivia somewhere along the way. I knew how acclaimed the theatre show was, how long it ran for, and had a brief insight in that one episode of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt where Titus encounters the show.
Where the movie is concerned, I had seen the trailers, witnessed the influx of opinions on the visual effects, heard Taylor Swift’s original song, and saw the first reactions of Tom Hooper’s latest attempt at filmmaking. Perhaps that sounds harsh, but I have seen the last three films Tom Hooper has made (The King’s Speech (2010), Les Miserables (2012), and The Danish Girl (2015) and have thoroughly disliked every one of them. So suffice to say that my excitement levels were not high for this one. But alas, I booked my ticket and there I was, sat in a semi-packed Odeon screen waiting to see what was about to unfold.
No amount of reviews or opinions can prepare you for what you’re about to witness. Cats is a film like no other, a label given to several films this year such as Waves and Parasite. To suggest that Cats is on that level of acclaim is absurd but, then again, so is the film itself.
I always try to keep an open mind in regards to how I feel about a film, but I knew in the first five minutes that I was not going to enjoy this. I will admit that I enjoyed the second half a lot more than the first, but when you’ve got Jennifer Hudson belting out the climactic bars of “Memory”, it’s hard not to find something to like.
I’m trying to find more positives for this, but it truly is difficult when all you can think about is dancing cockroaches and cats with human hands. Cats boasts an all-star cast comprised of two Oscar winners and an Oscar nominee, helmed by an Oscar-winning director (I’m still bitter that I had to type that), but it feels so wildly misguided that I’m not sure any amount of on-screen talent could save it. There are some decent attempts at successful performances, but it just feels lacklustre all round unfortunately.
Newcomer Francesca Hayward tries her absolute best in the role of Victoria, but her dancing is obviously her biggest strength and she truly does exercise a lot of talent, showing off her extensive ballet repertoire. The dance sequences in general are the film’s highlight, particularly Steven McRae’s Skimbleshanks tap routine which I think was my favourite moment of the film. Some of the choreography does become repetitive, particularly during the lengthy dance sequences. There is one in the Egyptian that lasts for several minutes and the dancers start to perform the same moves and you can’t help but feel like it could have been shortened, even though the performances are pretty great. The feline movements are mostly good, though a lot of the mannerisms feel very shudder-inducing, particularly the film’s way of showing affection between the cats. They just…nuzzle each other and it’s very strange because they’re standing on two legs and have human hands and they could very easily just hug? They’ve already defied any cat physics with the dancing, so why not go the extra mile and save us from these cat-humans rubbing up against each other.
Perhaps the most effective performer is Robbie Fairchild in the role of Munkustrap. His vocal and dance talents were always enjoyable and for whatever reason the visual effects benefitted him the most. It’s a strange thing to say, I know, but he looked the least out-of-place resembling a cat. Take that however you wish. Munkustrap is Victoria’s entrance in the life of a Jellicle Cat, but sadly the viewer doesn’t get such a welcoming introduction. We’re thrust immediately into a foreign version of London, where apparently there are no humans out at night, which is ridiculous considering the converse is pretty much always the case in London. There’s always something happening, but these cats just roam around without seeing any people.
Are exposition dumps still exposition dumps if they’re done through song? I think they are, and Cats delivers a big one. It runs through all the rules in quite a monotonous fashion, including the rules about naming a cat which, unless I stopped paying attention, wasn’t really relevant to the “story”. That’s in quotes because the film basically functions like a feline version of American Idol, where the focus shifts from one cat’s performance to another until the winner is crowned (ironically it’s Jennifer Hudson who notoriously came seventh in her season of the show). The characters and their personalities are hurled at you in a barrage of introductory musical numbers until you’re gasping to remember names, some of which aren’t even said. For instance, if I didn’t already know that Taylor Swift was playing Bombalurina, I wouldn’t have found out because the film never tells us. I know there’s some rule about cats having three names and all that, but they could at least have told us one while the global superstar pops up for her one scene and song about Idris Elba’s villainous Macavity.
Speaking of, Elba is a talented actor but is giving nothing in the way of nuance or development. A one-dimensional villain if there ever was one, Macavity literally just pops up every now and then, talks about how mysterious he is, and then kidnaps his fellow cats. We know that he wants to be the cat chosen to be sent to the Heaviside Layer (what?) and even goes so far as to kidnap Judi Dench to achieve his goal. Old Deuteronomy vehemently refuses to choose him so Elba tries to drown her (which would have achieved nothing considering a dead Deuteronomy couldn’t have chosen him anyway? Is there a proxy vote of some kind if Dench is unable to cast her vote? Look, I’m writing about cat politics…maybe the least weird thing about this film).
Judi Dench is a talented actress, there’s no denying that. An icon of stage and screen, she’s done a lot of really good stuff. I just can’t understand what this was. Kind of an ending spoiler here, but there is a moment where she breaks the fourth wall and talks about how to address a cat while Victoria, Mr Mistofelees, and Munkustrap look at her in wonderment. I don’t know if this was effective or even happened in the theatre show, but having a half-cat Judi Dench staring at me wasn’t the way I wanted to end my experience with this movie. I wanted another great dance number and a harmoniously held note and maybe a fade to black. But there’s a lengthy half spoken, half sung monologue song about bowing to cats. Although there was a moment where the line “call him by his name” was said and I immediately was assaulted with imagery of Call Me By Your Name but the characters are cats. Don’t ask, because I don’t want to talk about it.
I’m going to use this paragraph to dump some negative opinions I have before I do a wrap-up, because I’m really losing my mind writing about this movie. Rebel Wilson and James Corden stood out like sore thumbs (paws?) with their characters. Wilson makes meta cat jokes and Corden just…well I don’t know entirely what he was even doing but I did not enjoy it. Yes the cat was fat, what else? Next, everything just seemed to move a bit slowly, particularly when Victoria had to walk anywhere. More of a plot nitpick, but how does Mr Mistofelees suddenly turn into one of the Charmed sisters just because the other cats believe in him? They sing about him being smart and suddenly he can conjure cats and light fires and stuff? Suspension of disbelief indeed. There was a moment where Ian McKellen rubs up against a wooden pole and I can’t unsee it.
Honestly, I’ve been mincing my words a lot during this review because I appreciate how much time, money, and effort goes into making a movie like this. The show seems unadaptable for the screen in the first place, and you’re $80-100 million deep and you release a trailer that’s widely panned so you work and work at it until you have something to show to the world. Hooper had a mountainous task on his hands and I genuinely think this movie should have never even been attempted. It added nothing new to the canon of the show, wasted a lot of talented actors’ time and was just an all-round catastrophe. See it to believe it, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. Did I mention that there’s a shot where two cats are wearing actual human shoes? No? Well there’s that.
So, aside from me thinking they should’ve given up before they started writing the script (terrible, by the way), Cats was about as horrible as I could have expected. It’s not without its shining moments (Hudson belting out “Memory”, the tap sequence, and the respectable talents of the dance ensemble) but it couldn’t be salvaged. The distracting visual effects are completely jarring, and Hooper lifeless direction does nothing to help his cast. Fans of the show deserved a better adaptation than this, but I don’t think one could ever have been made. I hate to say it, but this was DOA. And during several parts of the movie (remember the cockroaches?), I wished that I was too.
As always, would love to know what you thought either in the comments or on Twitter @Jamie_Carrick_. Is this genuinely the worst movie of the year or is this merely hyperbole?