Film Review: CATS
I first encountered all things Jellicle at a children’s summer theater camp with Cincinnati’s Playhouse in the Park when I was eight. Homemade costumes and cat choreography at the Playhouse led to a young Mistoffelees wannabe coercing her brother to create childhood magic shows while singing and prancing through the living room to a reluctant audience of parents and relatives. I have a deep and long history with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s unusual, yet oddly charming, CATS. I was a proud owner of the theatrical film on VHS, I saw the production live on the West End at ten, and I honored my childhood self by returning for the Broadway revival a few years back.
Unfortunately, even for this nostalgic fan, the new, high-budget film adaptation does not deliver. What I found so charming about the show as a child – the palpable energy of live theater, the majestic physical accomplishments of performers (in full makeup and body suit) stretching, leaping, and jumping across the stage – did not translate to the CGI-heavy film. Without the live component, CATS became the strange experience of watching unplaceable feline-humans moving at inhuman speeds and accomplishing quixotic computerized tricks, devoid of magic and mystery.
Who is the audience for CATS? The children sitting next to me in the theater were not entranced. As a young fan of the musical, I was shocked at how the show’s physical language was interpreted (poorly) to the screen. What appears charming feline affection from the seat of a proscenium theater with live performers did not translate well to the close-ups of the film. It appears that director Tom Hooper, both in the staging and casting of the film, attempted to install pop culture sex appeal into a musical based on an old British book of poems about cats. The result is, quite frankly, disturbing and as a result, I would not recommend the film for children at all. Nor anyone, really.
Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography harkens to the original musical with updated nods to more modern styles. Usually beautiful and innovative, the performers' movement has been sped to impossible speeds, which (rather than impressing) cause us to cock our heads as we try to comprehend the absurdity in what we are viewing. The magic is lost in the inhumanity of the cats, who we continue to recognize in human form.
The performers in the film achieve varying levels of commitment, or perhaps I could only take them varied levels of seriously. Jason Derulo shouting, “MILK!,” James Corden making fat jokes while shoveling garbage into his mouth, and Ian McKellen lapping up milk from a tray and mewing, “meow meow MEOW” were almost embarrassing to view, while newcomer Francesca Hayward (Victoria) was absolutely charming and a joy to watch, and Broadway’s American In Paris star, Robert Fairchild was equally endearing as Munkstrap. Interestingly, the ballerinas in this film far outperformed the reputable pop stars and actors around them.
CATS is a disappointing, confusing, and alarming film. The songs are the same songs that you love, the narrative is (actually, somehow) more clear, however, the Hollywoodization of the unusual-to-begin-with musical does not work and I don’t think that Hooper’s recently announced new release with completed CGI can solve the many issues of the film.
(Photos courtesy of Big Honcho Media)