The writers and film lovers here at Full Circle Cinema know that opinions on films are divisive and can get pretty argumentative. But to encourage friendly and lively debate, we have Full Circle Showdown, an in-depth discussion and collaborative review from two writers who have different opinions and ways of seeing films. For this showdown, we will be looking at the film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats.
While the 1981 musical changed the landscape of musical theatre for years to come, this adaptation is a landmark in its own right. In addition to introducing the concept of “jellicle cats” to a new generation, it commits to the idea of Digital Fur Technology™ like no other. So how did two of our writers respond to this idiosyncratic effort of a movie? Find out here!
Review #1: Mark Tan (Managing Critic)
For most adaptations, it comes down to one simple question: how well does it maintain the spirit of the material across different mediums? No matter how well it may work on its own terms, those adapting an existing property often need to make sure the essentials hold their shape. That way, audiences aware of the property can recognize it as something familiar. In the case of director Tom Hooper’s rendition of Cats, it tackles this question in record time. It carries so much of the stage musical’s unhinged spirit that it feels like Webber himself directed it. So if you like Cats for its elaborate choreography and gaudy aesthetic, rest assured that the movie brings that idea to life in exacting detail.
At the same time, it makes no sense to replicate a product when its components were flimsy in the first place. To describe the structure of the musical would be to say “this happens, and then this happens” since it speeds its way through all the characters. Rarely will you find a group of scenes in which one can describe the flow as “this happens, therefore this happens.” As a result, it becomes hard to emotionally invest in the onscreen events. Much to its detriment, Lee Hall & Hooper’s screenplay progresses in the same way. While characters like Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo) make an impression, they fade from memory as soon as they leave because of the film’s rushed momentum.
To make things worse, the choppy structure is not the only misconceived element to survive the adaptation process. As it turns out, Webber’s stylistically poor music is present in full force. True, it gives each character a distinct and memorable melody. But since it jumps between big orchestrations and dated synth sounds, it never manages to create a sense of cohesion. It would be one thing if it committed to kitsch the entire time. Because on their own, songs like “Jellicle Songs For Jellicle Cats” are appealing due to how weird they are. But since it needs room for sincere emotional beats, the weirdness mostly comes from the extreme mismatch.
In all fairness, evaluating Cats as a narrative piece is a fool’s errand. After all, both the film and the stage musical prioritize effortless choreography above any kind of story. To be even more generous, what choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler achieves with his ensemble is impressive work indeed. In particular, the tap-dancing of Skimbleshanks (Steven McRae) is so rapid and melodic that one has to appreciate the effort. That said, the core of Cats is misguided enough that even great dancing cannot hide it. Keep in mind, that’s not even getting into the aspects exclusive to this adaptation.
This brings us to the film’s most controversial element: the use of Digital Fur Technology™. When the trailers came out, audiences were terrified of the cat-human hybrids that the film calls its characters. And in this scenario, the trailers did not lie. Every scene has one of these cat-human hybrids in the frame, and it’s as horrific here as it was there. To Hooper’s credit, the absence of any normal-looking creature means that one can adapt to this hellish aesthetic. But the visual effects team sure makes that task a challenge. It is not enough to look at cats as grotesque as Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson). It also has the audacity to show off mice-human hybrids and cockroach-human hybrids in all their inhuman glory.
If there is anything else that makes this adaptation a disaster, it would be its wretched sense of humor. Ugly (and unfinished) CGI fur is one thing, but an onslaught of one-liners is another. Therefore, any time the two cross paths, it slides from being a fascinating wreck to something legitimately unwatchable. This is most apparent with the character of Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson), as she throws out the lamest cat puns imaginable. At one point, she even calls herself a crazy cat lady as if she was a superhero. Admittedly, Hall and Hooper place its worst pun – the “cat got your tongue” bit – in the early scenes. Nevertheless, it leads the audience down a dark path that never seems to end.
Yet for all of its downfalls, Cats is a deeply captivating experience. Some of that is due to the admittedly lavish production values. Cinematographer Christopher Ross frequently uses bold lighting and colors to create a world of its own. For example, the neon color scheme and rhythmic cuts in the “The Rum Tum Tugger” sequence allow it to dive deep into pure fantasy. Even in cases where editor Melanie Oliver creates a rhythm different from the action, the visual aesthetic achieves several grace notes. Furthermore, it captivates precisely because no one decided to filter its insane choices. Say what you will about things like Jennyanydots’s shenanigans, there is no way one can call it uninteresting.
While one could imagine a more restrained version of Cats, I fail to see how that version would be more eye-catching. Besides, no amount of visual effects improvements can hide how bonkers this movie is. Need I remind you, this is a film that forces Jason Derulo to shout the word “milk” as if it was a battle cry! What makes for a true Cats adaptation is a discomforting blend of contemporary and ancient elements, and bless Hooper for maintaining that blend. It may be the farthest thing from great, but it is also the farthest thing from boring. For that reason alone, it deserves a slot in the pantheon of movies that are so bad they’re good.
Review #2: James Preston Poole (Lead Critic)
There are movies. There is cinema. And then there’s Cats. On a chilly Sunday evening, in a nearly empty downtown theater with my significant other, cat whiskers painted on our face, I was ready to take in whatever misguided weirdness Tom Hooper’s adaptation of an irrelevant musical had to offer. At least, I thought I was.
Cats is the type of thing you have to see with your own eyes to believe. Every choice is so baffling, so utterly misguided and uncomfortable, that it circles back around to again to being a gonzo work of art. There’s so much wrong, and conversely right, about this movie that it must be taken apart- piece by piece- to determine what exactly makes Cats such essential viewing for all.
Transporting its audiences to the streets of London at night, the cinematography by Christopher Ross – in tandem with a wonderfully synth-heavy score – forges a somewhat Gothic tone that sets the stage for the stars of our film: those glorious CGI cats. No trailer or description can do these things justice. At first sight, they’re abominable mish-mashes of cats and humans gone awry. There’s no telling where one or the other ends, but there is one certainty: the effects work needed a lot more time in the oven.
Yet, something peculiar happens as the movie goes on. The cats start to look less off-putting. Is it because some parts of the film were more finished than others? Well, yes, but that’s not it. It’s because Cats has the gall to throw these Frankenstein creations into your face the entire time, unhidden by shadows or anything to mask their imperfections. Tom Hooper and all his collaborators commit to seeing this bizarre vision through.
This extends to the structure of the film. An inherited issue from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, the plot of Cats is practically non-existent, an excuse to get from one cat to the other. The film fails on a pretty big level in providing the audience with any semblance of a traditional story, and barely has a protagonist beyond Francesca Hayward’s Victoria, who’s saddled with that designation by default. Not having a stable turns out to be a boon in the long run, because the faster we get to each cat introduction the better.
They’re all charming, really. The “might be the devil” cat Macavity (Idris Elba). The “gumbie” cat Jennyanydots who gives Rebel Wilson the opportunity to do her usual shtick. The “curious” cat Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo) who screams “milk” at the top of his lungs into the camera. And, my personal favorite, the “magical” cat Mister Mistoffeles (Laurie Davidson). This entire review could consist of me writing descriptions of all the cats introduced in the movie. There’s just that many unique personalities here, all deeply strange, that you want to meet them all.
It doesn’t hurt that all of the songs are certified toe-tappers. Andrew Lloyd Webber can write a hell of a song, and it shows. The extravagant musical numbers which, as Mark said in his review, are excellently choreographed, simply have not left my head. From the triumphant “Mister Mistoffeles” to the heartbreaking “Memory”, I had to practically stop myself from singing in the theater. They’re so big and bombastic, carried by those aforementioned unique characters, yet so catchy, that it feels as if you’re attending a top-notch production of the musical. And seeing as how this is a translation of the musical, that’s a very good thing.
For every element that does work in this film, there’s gonna be one that’s a head-scratcher. To offset the genuinely great musical numbers, the film carries with it an air of what can only be described as “unspeakable horniness”. Despite the choreography’s objective panache, the movements are strangely sexualized. Lots of nuzzling, slow touching- it’s all very uncomfortable. When every other line is spoken in a sultry tone, there’s an intentional pattern. Why Tom Hooper chose to make it this way is beyond me. Still, it’s a feather in the strange cap of an already bonkers movie.
By the time Cats reaches its end, a character directly breaks the fourth wall to look into the audience. By then, I already made up my mind. I love Cats. And not even in an ironic way. Its vision is so strange, so misguided, that I loved just spending time in a world this positively alien to me. It’s clear that the crew who made Cats really care about their work, and their earnestness paid off.
I find myself not wanting to make fun of Cats, but celebrate that we could even have something this remarkably creative exist in 2019. It’s easy to use something like this film as a punching bag. But I genuinely feel like Cats will have its day in the sun. There’s no denying something this disrupting. Folks, meet your next cult classic.
Between Mark and James’s thoughts, it is evident that Cats is a film one cannot ignore. While James found far more legitimate enjoyment out of it than Mark, both cannot deny how unfiltered and alluring Hooper’s adaptation of the musical is. At the very least, it is a film bound to generate some sort of reaction, which is more than one can say about your typical studio blockbuster. – Mark Tan & James Preston Poole
Cats is now available in theaters.
The film stars Francesca Hayward, Idris Elba, Judi Dench, Jennifer Hudson, Jason Derulo, Rebel Wilson, Ian McKellen, and Taylor Swift.