CATS – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: James Corden (Into the Woods), Judi Dench (Skyfall), Jason Derulo, Idris Elba (Beasts of No Nation), Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls), Ian McKellen (X-Men), Taylor Swift (The Gift), Rebel Wilson (Pitch Perfect), Francesca Hayward

Director: Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech)

Writers: Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) & Tom Hooper

Runtime: 1 hour 50 minutes

Release Date: 20th December (US, UK)

So………Cats. I, uh…what is there even to say? It’s Cats, but now a movie, and…um, yeah, it’s…it’s kinda bad and weird but also fascinating and laughable and…well, that’s about all I can muster when pressed for comment. It is “a musical experience”, I’ll grant it that, but…what even is this? I honestly feel more confused having now seen the damn thing than when it was just a meme-worthy trailer, so now…I guess I’ll try and review it? I mean, this rambling first paragraph should alone tell you my state of mind after watching it, but…OK. Let me get my critic hat on and suss this one out.

One of the more common criticisms of Cats as a musical is that it doesn’t have much of a plot; it’s more of a mood piece that introduces you to its world and characters, there’s a slight bit of conflict involving Grizabella (Hudson) and Macavity (Elba), and then it kind of resolves itself and ends. The film version massages the limited story into something slightly more cohesive on a structure level, but ultimately the same criticism applies. The plot is just window dressing to set up each song, many of which don’t move the story forward in any way. It’s actually kind of a monotonous and boring series of events that just repeats over and over. A cat introduces themselves, sings about their one thing, Macavity shows up to be evil, rise and repeat for nearly two hours. That…that’s honestly all there is to say. I guess there’s some themes about forgiveness and second chances, but it’s not all that deep. Most of the rest of the dialogue is all psychedelic mumbo jumbo about how cats have three names and are magic or something. I…I really did see the movie, readers. I’m not just throwing this review together for the clicks. It’s about as empty and confusing as I’m making it sound.

Anyway…since the moment the film was announced, adding even more to its perplexing nature is the ludicrous cast they’ve assembled for it, and many of them look about as bewildered as the audience. There’s no real consistency in what level of performance they’re giving, and they range from taking it way too seriously to completely hamming it up. James Cordena and Rebel Wilson are essentially just playing variations of themselves, Jason Derulo is going full-on horndog rockstar, Jennifer Hudson seems to think she can pull an Anne Hathaway with an Oscar bait performance, and Ian McKellen…well, he’s the only one who seems to know how ridiculous this all is and just rolls with it. It’s just kind of surreal for the most part. You’re watching Judi Dench covered in fur curled up in a wicker basket and Idris Elba strutting around essentially naked but not because cat hair. There is no way to take any of this seriously, and everyone seems to be confused about whether they should or not. Nobody gives a bad performance per se. It mainly just comes down to thin material and woefully bad direction.

As soon as footage from the film was released, everyone was freaked out by how bizarre and unsettling the CGI used to turn these actors into cat hybrids. Whilst the final product is far more seamless and well executed than that early trailer suggested, from a design perspective it’s still just a baffling result. The odd choices of what to make feline and what to leave human just creates some utterly bemusing imagery, like how the cats often crawl about on their knees or have hairy hands with human digits they still refer to as paws. From a technical perspective it’s an impressive effect, but regardless it looks gaudy and upsetting and just using costumes and make-up to transform the actors would have probably been less expensive and more palatable. There is a surprising amount of practical elements in the film like the gigantic size-warping sets, but because there is not a single shot without computer enhancement it all looks so sleek and unreal that it might as well be an animated film.

Oh, and because this is a musical, I guess I should talk about the music………I didn’t like it. It has kind of the same problem Les Miserables has in that a lot of the songs are melodically interchangeable, but that musical has lyrics rich in theme and emotion and character conflict whilst Cats has…”I’m a house cat” and “I’m a sexy cat” and “I’m an actor cat” and “I’m a train cat” and…yeah, I think I made my point.

Yeah, not going to lie: this movie has kind of broken me. I have never been this baffled walking out of a movie theatre ever, but oddly enough it hasn’t left much of an impact on my brain. My struggle to write this review is less because of how utterly insane and awful this film is, and more just how underwhelmingly banal and forgettable the whole experience was (honestly, my brain quickly went back to still sussing out what went wrong with The Rise of Skywalker). It’s not even that remarkable in a so-bad-it’s-good sort of way. It’s just…dull. What else did you expect from Tom Hooper, the man who made Les Miserables look dull and pretentious and incompetent? This is easily the worst mainstream Hollywood musical in a long time, and that $95 million budget isn’t going to be made back easily. Now can someone please bring me back to reality? Please?


Author: Jennifer Heaton

Aspiring screenwriter, film critic, pop culture fanatic and perpetual dreamer.

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