Tom Hooper's thoroughly misguided adaptation of the hit musical is both a vision of hell and a fascinating curio
For Christmas, how about a film in which the word “Jellicle” is repeated, over and over again, until you have simply lost the will to live? And that’s just the first ten minutes. What unholy vision is this, then, that comes to us unwanted, unwarranted, and seemingly unaware of its capacity to haunt our waking dreams? Cats, a musical film based on the iconic West End stage show, appears to have squeezed itself through a pet flap-shaped portal leading straight to hell. “Are you blind when you’re born?” intones one feline in the film’s very first moments. After seeing this, you’ll probably wish you had been.
Consider its main collaborators, who have joined forces like the Fur Horseman of the Apocalypse: Tom Hooper, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Taylor Swift and – take your pick – Idris Elba? Jason Derulo? James Corden? Rebel Wilson? With performances this bad, the jury’s out for the worst offender, and only Ian McKellen and Jennifer Hudson escape the mess unscathed. Even as he mumbles his lines and she – sobbing through iconic showstopper “Memory” – sets out to do a Hathaway and bag the Oscar for Best Actress Crying in a Tom Hooper Musical Adaptation is there the slightest glimpse of what could have been.
But Cats forces to you to ask so many questions about what is happening, and why, that it is impossible to engage with the material. Nothing makes sense, and even the things that make no sense make no sense. You will ask yourself, over and over: what period is this version of London supposed to be set? Has the end of the world occurred? Why are the cats half human and why are their proportions constantly shifting? Why does that cat wear a hat, and why does that cat not wear a hat? Why do the mice and the cockroaches have human faces? And as these lyrical creatures sing and dance, with names like Macavity and Rumpleteazer and Rum Tum Tugger, you simply claw to see it all without the layers of ugly CGI. Taylor Swift, on screen for a mere 10 minute spell and singing in a faux-British accent, doesn’t even seem to have been properly rendered as a cat. As her sultry Bombalurina’s face seems to float independently from her head, it’s like watching a film shot through a Snapchat filter. Witnessing these Jellicles perform magic and do ballet – terrifying, nightmarish – leads you to just one thought: we have gone too far. Cinema must end. This should be the last film ever made.
The plot never made sense on stage, of course, but it didn’t need to. Here an attempt has been made to lend the gibberish a narrative thread, which only serves to highlight the obvious: its story of Jellicle cats trying to ascend to the “Heaviside Layer” via a variety show is pure nonsense, absolutely not the stuff of cinema. Hooper, whose usual style is marked by an overuse of the fish eye lens, at least directs this movie without resorting to this trademark flourish. But how did he direct it? Has Cats been directed, really? There is no direction, except to simply place the camera somewhere, anywhere, and let these felines strut and splay their way through a 111 minute runtime that feels roughly six times as long.
When Judi Dench – haunting, but never in a good way – turns to address the camera, several times, in the film’s final, seemingly never-ending scene, you won’t know whether to laugh or cry. And yet you must see it. Not because Cats is good, or worthy of your money. But because Cats is a landmark piece of terrible art, The Room of musical film adaptations. Because Cats has to be seen to be believed. Because maybe, here, at the tail end of 2019, Cats is exactly the film we all deserve.Where to watch