The “Cats” musical has proven to be one of the biggest success stories in stage history, both on Broadway in New York as much as the West End in London. The musical was adapted by legendary Broadway writer/composer Andrew Lloyd Weber from a collection of poems by T.S. Elliot. The problem with adapting anything T.S. Elliot however, is that his writing is always incredibly vague and abstract. As such, the “Cats” musical takes on a structure and tone unlike anything produced on the stage in a seeming bizarre way. Despite this, the musical seemed to draw big crowds for their live performances, but adapting it into a movie is an entirely different matter.
Cats (2019) delves into the world of Jellicle cats, a tribe, which once a year choose a cat to be ascended into a sort of Jellicle Heaven called the Heavyside Layer. We see the world through the eyes of newbie Victoria (Francesca Hayward) as she witnesses the competition of different cats for the hallowed spot, which is chosen by the wise Old Duderonomy (Judi Dench).
What baffled many about the construction of the Cats narrative, is that it is seemingly plot-less. While there seems to be a semblance of a world, the majority of the musical both on stage and on screen, is simply cats singing introductory songs… that’s it. This seeming lack of structure is what made the musical so revolutionary, and yet the jump to the screen has not served it well.
It is hard to grasp one’s mind around the “point” of Cats, as the lack of a plot or message takes away from the necessity of an audience investment. However, this could have been taken by some as Andrew Lloyd Weber commenting on the structuring of stories and musicals, and thus almost mocking audiences, a la Andy Warhol, for flocking to see such a non-sensical show. But Cats doesn’t seem to give off the air of being a self-aware piece that is commenting on its genre, rather one gets the sense of a school assignment that was hastily completed the night before it was due. As such the seeming “showy” aspects of a musical i.e. the choreography and the songs, seem to be in passable shape, but the larger purpose of a plot and characters in non-existent. Thus a complete air of laziness and disinterest seems to settle from both behind the pen as much as in the audience.
However, this lack of a story could have been made more digestible had each of the musical numbers been alluring; but despite a star-studded cast, Cats mostly fails to bring its songs any urgency or importance. Only an exception is to be made for a powerful rendition of “Memories” by Jennifer Hudson, which was the only piece that brought some feeling to viewers. Aside from that, the cast that includes the likes of Idris Elba, Taylor Swift, and Ian McKellen, is forced to prance around in a ridiculous manner that seemed more embarrassing for audiences to witness than for the actors performing.
Then there’s the visual effects. While the stage versions have campy costumes for each of their characters, director Tom Hooper (Les Miserables (2012)) decided to go for a realistic vision in the film, which resulted in some truly horrifying humanoid cats that were terribly rendered. As for the background world that they performed in, the weak visual texture seemed to be more at home in a video game from 10 years ago than in a major studio film.
It is encouraging to see studios take bold risks such as this Cats; however, this swing is a big miss. Cats is not particularly appealing to watch and the unstructured narrative is taken too seriously by Hooper to stave off the air of ridicule. In the end, Cats seemed to be so bad it was good, certainly in my screening there were guffaws and giggles from viewers at how ridiculous and embarrassing the film was. I guess that is some form of entertainment.