There’s an urban myth that suggests reviewing bad movies is a pleasurable, cathartic experience for film journalists. Truth is, critics take no joy in writing about said films, and no amount of condemnation can alleviate their suffering. Curiously, the latest addition to this infamous group does not draw resentment from the viewer, but a different emotion entirely.
In the dead of night, a white-furred cat named Victoria (Francesca Hayward) is dumped on the streets of London. There she meets a group of feline strays calling themselves the Jellicles, and is given the coldest of welcomes by their leader Munkustrap (Robbie Fairchild) who informs her that tonight, coincidentally, is the occasion of the Jellicle Ball, an event that sees the city’s cats compete for the opportunity to be granted another life.
Helmed by acclaimed director Tom Hooper, Cats is a reasonably faithful adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-penned theatrical musical of the same name, which itself is based on the poems of T.S. Eliot. In acknowledgement of its origins, the film has a hodge-podge cast of thespians, comedians, singers and dancers with varying degrees of acting experience – some, like Rebel Wilson are no stranger to the screen, while others such as Hayward are making their acting debut.
When a film has an ensemble cast, it’s typically the bigger names who are the stand-outs, while the unknowns are there solely to provide support. Cats is an altogether different breed in this regard, because it’s the newer, less-experienced players who impress the most, while the famed actors who, theoretically, should be exhibiting more talent than anybody else are the ones who provide the worst performances, chiefly Ian McKellen in a truly embarrassing display as Gus the Theatre Cat.
Cats seems intent on perplexing audiences from the very first minute. Much like its main protagonist, the viewer is thrown into the movie without explanation, nor even the barest resemblance of exposition, and is immediately met with a number from the soundtrack. Those who aren’t familiar with the original stage-play, or even the much-maligned trailer, will undoubtedly struggle to comprehend what they’re witnessing – they certainly won’t understand why the anthropomorphised cats appear vaguely human.
Since the release of the aforementioned trailer, and in recent weeks especially, much fuss has been made about the creepy and oddly sexual imagery in Cats that has drawn the ire of many cinemagoers, a feeling made even worse by the poor computer-generated effects and numerous technical mistakes. The sub-par visuals were apparently so awful that Universal Pictures felt compelled to rectify the final product and distribute a newly-edited cut to theatres, mere days after its wide release in the United States.
This reviewer was blessed (for want of a better word) with seeing Version 2.0 of the film, purported to have fixed numerous “bugs” in the visuals and made characters less voluptuous. Unfortunately, even with these mistakes corrected Cats is not a pretty picture, since the CGI-enhanced bodies and faces – fur has been digitally added to the human actors to provide them with their feline appearance – are poorly animated and badly rendered for such a high-budget blockbuster.
Pain continues in the form of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s soundtrack, which is supposed to be the centrepiece of Cats. There is no consistency to the music, which goes through so many changes in tone and genre that viewers are left unsure as to whether they are even listening to the same composer’s work. More baffling is that Webber’s songs, orchestrations and prolific use of the synthesiser barely correlate with the actions and movements of the characters on-screen.
Even as the film is coming to an end, Cats does not ease the audience’s suffering and continues its torment in the form of Deuteronomy (Judi Dench). The final moments of the story see this matriarchal protagonist speaking directly to the camera, lecturing the audience as to how cats should be treated as equals by people, a scene that proved more nauseating than any other in the movie’s 110-minute length. It truly is a sour end to an already sour experience.
Redemption comes quite aptly in the form of Jennifer Hudson, who lends her appearance and voice to Grizabella, a character shunned by the Jellicles due to her association with the story’s antagonist, Macavity (Idris Elba). Hudson offers far more effort than she ought to, providing a raw performance and a stirring rendition of the oft-sung “Memory” that puts just about everybody to shame. The set design is also impressive, if only because the rest of Cats is unappealing by comparison.
Indeed Cats – or the newer version, at least – is so woefully produced that it cannot even be enjoyed on a superficial, ironic level. Just when the film appears to be taking itself too seriously, along comes a “joke” that makes fun of the material, or a feline-based pun that more discerning critics would rather not add to their review. These efforts of self-deprecation mean that the picture can never be consumed, The Room-style as a so-bad-it’s-good type of affair.
Cats is a bewildering experience from a once-celebrated Hollywood director. Bad acting is mined from the unlikeliest of sources, songs that are part of the original soundtrack sound as though they don’t belong, and the visuals remain substandard even after being digitally altered. Much like a feral moggy that kills native wildlife, this feature is unworthy of your affection.