Tom Hooper’s film adaptation of the love-it-or-love-to-hate-it Broadway classic Cats is so eager to be loved that it forgets to be anything else. The actors—whose faces are creepily human while their bodies are fur-covered, CGI-enhanced human-cat hybrids—smile and cry and wail in such hammy fashion that it seems, at first, like it must all be a joke. Surely, something will be revealed behind the curtain? The fourth wall will certainly break and we’ll learn, with a wink, that this is a meta experiment measuring just how much pizzazz an audience can take, right? But no, Cats is instead a runaway train of camp, gathering more and more glitter as it rolls along, out of control, before crumbling into a litter box of bad ideas.

Then again, Cats is often a blast in that it’s absolutely, entertainingly terrible on a number of levels, from the acting to the icky sexual undertones to the unfinished and cartoonish production design, which looks like a poor man’s mixture of Speed Racer and Moulin Rouge!. The plot, which makes no sense in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage version (or in the T.S. Eliot poetry he adapted that from), is made even more delightfully batshit by Hooper and cowriter Lee Hall’s adaptation. Major characters are squeezed down into cameos (presumably to suit superstars’ schedules) while other characters are created and then abandoned before we care about them.

The basics are still in place; Jellicle cats (which is said a lot, though there is no real explanation of what Jellicle is) are competing to be the one cat to ascend to heaven (called the Heaviside Layer), where she or he will be reborn. This provides the framework for scenery-chewing performances by Jennifer Hudson, Taylor Swift, Jason Derulo, Idris Elba, Rebel Wilson, Ray Winstone, James Corden and even Ian McKellen and Judi Dench, all of whom embarrass themselves spectacularly. It’s refreshing to see such incredible talent approach their terrible roles with such enthusiasm and verve. No one phones it in, and the result is epically, watchably awkward. They are all trying so hard that it almost hurts.

However, some of Cats’ problems are simply unforgiveable, most egregiously its special effects (which seem to be at the epicenter of Hooper’s vision) and the music, which is performed by some incredible talents but is so rushed and over-mixed that the singers sound like chipmunks squealing in the middle of a 48-piece orchestra. Even “Memory,” the musical’s classic showstopper performed here by Oscar and Grammy winner Hudson, puts its singer in the backseat while hitting us over the head with gimmicky bells and whistles.

The problem with the effects is twofold; they are clearly unfinished and they also lack imagination, replacing the grungy chic of the stage musical with a hairball of neon, pastel and glitter. For every dazzling background or set piece, there are five that look as if they were plucked out of a Nintendo 64 game. This applies to the performers as well, who were presumably mo-capped but who just look like humans in hair-covered CGI wetsuits. Rather than looking like cats, their flattened heads and smoothed-out curves and bumps make them look like a very inappropriate swim team.

If Cats was simply bad in the campy sense, it would be a must-see—perhaps for the wrong reasons, but a must-see nonetheless. However, its technical issues and failure to emphasize the classic music of the original production manage to distract from the glorious badness of the rest of the film. No one will escape Cats unscathed, but it’s so poorly conceived, so inevitably terrible, that it shouldn’t end any careers either. And there is something touching about how much everyone involved seems to want it to work, despite there being absolutely no evidence that it ever could.

  • The Danish Girl

    The Danish Girl is the sort of “prestige” picture that’s easy to dislike. …
  • Les Misérables

    [xrr rating=2.0/5]In 1990, director John Maybury directed what would become one of the mos…
  • The Ancestor: by Danielle Trussoni

    A work with the bones of a classic gothic tale but with flesh that is of our time. …
  • First Cow

    It‘s pretty male, and pretty white. …
  • Later: by Paul Lisicky

    Though Later bears witness to a devastating time in history, Lisicky resists morbidity in …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

The Ancestor: by Danielle Trussoni

A work with the bones of a classic gothic tale but with flesh that is of our time. …