Months before its release, the trailers for Hollywood’s latest musical theatre adaptation had already caused a storm on social media, with people tweeting that the CGI cat faces would haunt their nightmares, and memes spreading the rumour that the whole thing is just a thinly-veiled cat orgy. The child-friendly rating disproves this theory, but I can see where people are coming from, since the film consists of almost two hours of humanoid cats piling on top of each other in elaborate choreographies.
There is an attempt at a plot but it’s not a very good one. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical is based on a collection of whimsical poems written by T.S. Eliot for his godchildren, featuring a series of feline characters with human-like personality quirks. In 1981, the legendary Broadway composer decided that the poems would provide the lyrics for his new brainchild, so he strung them together in a bizarre story about a tribe of stray cats gathering in an annual ball/talent show, whose winner gets to fly away to cat Heaven on a chandelier. Oh, and a couple of them have magical powers. Almost forty years later, Cats mysteriously endures as one of Broadway’s most popular musicals.
Unsurprisingly, the film is a confusing mess. Webber’s score oscillates between whimsical, creepy, and pompous, and drags the film with it in all its mood swings. The trademark weirdness of Webber intertwines with the fatal flaw of Broadway adaptations: trying to be film, theatre and pop culture sensation all at once. The casting choices expose this ambiguous mindset, with pop stars Taylor Swift and Jason Derulo starring alongside stage veterans Ian McKellen and Judi Dench, not to mention a gaggle of Broadway dancers who stalk their every move.
The result is far from the triple threat that musical theatre excels at because each performance exposes the others’ flaws: the Shakespearean actors highlight the blandness of other performances, the dancers put everyone’s moves to shame, and the singing is just meh. Even Francesca Hayward, the closest thing we have to a leading lady, appears to struggle with the high notes. She is, after all, a ballet dancer and not a singer. Her casting was likely an attempt to enhance the film’s physicality, since an elaborate choreography has always been one of Cats’ strengths.
However, this feature does not translate well in a picture saturated with CGI. The casts’ acrobatics are enhanced with superhuman leaps and lunges, which detract from their impressiveness. At the theatre I would marvel at their skill, but here I was left to unpack how much of it was computer-generated. Other than this, and despite Twitter, I think the garish special effects were a great addition to Webber’s baroque creation. Hayward’s twitching cat ears deserve their own acting credit, and for all its faults, the world of the Jellicle cats is spectacularly crafted.