'Cats' Is A Cats-Tastrophe, It's A-Paw-Ling, And I Loved It
I can't tell you the exact number of times I've seen 'Cats', but it is too many.
When news broke that Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper had collected a litter of A-listers to adapt the iconic, arguably terrible show into a feature film, it was like electricity had flown through my entire body.
Then there was the day the trailer dropped and Twitter writhed in gleeful agony as if drunk on catnip. The film looked terrible and we wanted it immediately.
If you haven't seen 'Cats' the plot is fairly straightforward.
A group of cats known as the Jellicles get together and take turns introducing themselves to each other before one is chosen to ascend to the moon -- sometimes by a staircase, sometimes a UFO -- to die.
There's also a subplot featuring the evil Macavity who, through threatening jazz choreography, attempts to derail the Jellicle Ball.
Like the CIA's mind control efforts in the '60s, Tom Hooper's 'Cats' feels like an assault on the mind, body and spirit that is sure to leave viewers affected for years to come.
Even in the very first seconds, Hooper takes the audience into the skies of London. In the clouds, the face of a cat can be seen as if a designer forgot to delete a Photoshop layer.
"This movie is about cats," it suggests.
Hooper wrote the screenplay with Lee Hall, making slight alterations to Andrew Lloyd Webber's original musical and injecting it with the kind of literalism that, when Jennifer Hudson's Grizabella the Glamour Cat sings "someone mutters" they can be heard offscreen, muttering.
"The withered leaves collect at my feet," she mournfully sings as the camera pans out, showing delicately placed withered leaves collected at her feet.
The alterations and additions Hooper and Hall made serve very little purpose other than to make the film confusing, convoluted and oddly paced.
There were changes to the story itself, with the introduction of Victoria, played by Francesca Hayward, a young cat discarded into Jellicle territory. Victoria is the perfect tool for the musical's otherwise parade of introductions and exposition.
"We're at a ball where we sing our own names before Judi Dench picks one of us to die," the cats paraphrase to the newcomer. That shift does not prevent Dame Judi -- as Old Deuteronomy -- from breaking the fourth wall at the conclusion of the film.
Looking like a drag interpretation of the Cowardly Lion, Oscar-winner Dame Judi Dench speaks directly to the audience in a terrifying moment of absurdity and performs "The Ad-dressing of the Cats" as a languid soliloquy.
It doesn't work. Most of the film feels like a series of increasingly frantic vignettes that result in a patchwork quilt of horrors. Dench staring lifelessly down the camera, cloaked in digital fur, is now my sleep paralysis demon.
One of the biggest changes of the film was to remove a lot of the reliance on literal garbage the staging of the musical uses ingeniously. Gone is Skimbleshanks' makeshift train made of pot lids and discarded bike wheels. Instead, we're magically transported to an actual train through tap dancing. Jennyanydots' tap number alongside her trained mice and roaches is boiled down to a series of slapstick sight-gags which does its best to utilize Rebel Wilson's comedic chops. Taylor Swift's dad suggested her rendition of "Macavity the Mystery Cat" be set among a writhing orgy of catnip.
The most visually interesting and memorable moments of the stage show have been lost. The most memorable moments of 'Cats' are the times you shrug your shoulders to your ears and cry "WHAT IS HAPPENING?" to the Heaviside Layer.
Magic is another unexpected emphasis to Hooper's telling of the story, with his Macavity -- played all too sexily by Idris Elba -- having the ability to apparate and conjure trickery to kidnap (cat-nap?) various characters in the film.
Macavity's increased role in the film serves very little purr-pose. He's a neutered threat whose increased exposure only serves to make him appear less like a menacing and more like a pantomime villain. Perhaps that's why they put him in a fedora.
Why, you may rightfully ask, is a cat wearing a fedora? Why are some of the cats wearing coats? A handful of cats wear shoes, but not all cats wear shoes. The 'Cats' cinematic universe has no consistency when it comes to scale and clothing.
The cast does fine with what they are given, like the orphans of 'Oliver Twist' being nourished on gruel so too are these performers of a high calibre doing exactly what they can with the material provided.
Jason Derulo's accent is actually great, Taylor Swift does well and not enough will be said about how much work Robert Fairchild's Munkustrap has to do to keep the momentum of the movie rolling.
Much has been said of the film's use of what they called "digital fur technology". Like Mulligrubs with hair, the actors occasionally do look brilliant cloaked in their furs. And every so often, they look like a terrifying glitch in a video game for furries.
The cats have human hands and feet.
The reliance on CGI also means the impact on what makes 'Cats' great -- or as great as 'Cats' can be -- is lost. The original production sees dancers combine styles like ballet and jazz with gymnastics and cat-like movement. Seeing an entire stage of lycra-clad actors flip and kick and twirl has gravitas. Hooper's ensemble scenes often look like a screensaver that never really reaches the same payoff.
Watching 'Cats' was like a religious experience -- if that experience also featured consuming a near-lethal dose of peyote.
The film fails to live up to its stage origins, and Hooper has instead created something disastrous, frenetic and frankly confusing. I wish I could go back in time so I could have the experience of watching 'Cats' with virgin eyes all over again. That's an experience I can never have again.
Something about 'Cats' feels like it's the closest to a film adaptation of a Bosch painting -- full of chaos and orifice -- but arguable the greatest injustice of all is the accusation that the film digitally removed Jason Derulo's bulge.
Now that's a catastrophe.