Tom Hooper adapts the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical into a Cronenbergian hellscape of trippy man-cats and the barest sliver of story.
What is Cats about, anyway? Sure, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1981 musical is ostensibly based on a book of T.S. Eliot poems about cats, but ask anyone who’s seen the stage show and they don’t ever seem to have a satisfactory answer. It’s a plotless show about nothing, really; like Seinfeld, but Kramer is neutered. Now, along comes Tom Hooper to show us just how far he can take nothing, and it turns out it’s a jaw-dropping hellscape from which few return unscathed. We’re up, up, up to the Heaviside Layer now, and we’re not coming down without some serious brain damage.
On a lot of levels, it feels like Tom Hooper understands the absurdity of Cats — the lack of story, the silly names, the incessant descriptions of what kind of cats they are — which is why we’ve enjoyed months of meme fodder out of his wild decision to turn the cats themselves into human-cat CG hybrids, like some sort of Island of Dr. Moreau but with more ballet flats. But while he leans into some of the show’s quirks, he backs away from others, which lands Cats in an uncanny valley of its own, between wacky midnight-movie masterpiece and musical misfire.
We all remember the last time Hooper adapted a popular musical to the stage, throwing the cast of 2012’s Les Miserables into live-singing in closeups so extreme you could practically see their tonsils vibrating. This time, Hooper’s put all his chips into a bizarre re-imagining of the musical in which the cast of cats occupy a hyper-realistic, cat-scaled version of early 20th-century London in which the performers dance among mega-sized objects and sets. Even before we get to the nightmarish DeviantArt rejects that comprise the cast of characters, the world opens up so many questions: Are there humans in this world? Why is London empty? If this world was built for people, why are all the buildings named after cat stuff (The Royal Klaws Hotel, The Milk Bar)? It’s Cars all over again!
But, of course, we have to get to the cats themselves, a frightening blend of computer-generated fur and exaggerated proportions to make the human performers in mocap suits look… kinda like cats? The result is at once hilariously mad and deeply unsettling; one finds themselves scanning the edges of Francesca Hayward’s face to figure out where the fur begins and studying the strangeness of the photorealistic whiskers on everyone’s upper lips. Faces blur and wobble on CG cat bodies as the animators try desperately to keep up with the cats’ graceful, balletic choreography. Some cats wear shoes, others wear pants; some hold down jobs, others don fur coats (which might be made from the skins of other cats?). The mind boggles to absorb all this information, and it’s easy to get lost in the chaos. By the time I walked out of Cats, I wasn’t even sure what a real cat looked like anymore.
The story of Cats will hardly provide any kind of comforting anchor — let we forget, the original stage show is basically just a series of musical numbers strung together by spirit gum and enthusiasm. Hooper and co-writer Lee Hall, however, try to impose the suggestion of a plot onto the proceedings, turning opening-number dancer Victoria (Hayward, most known as a ballerina) into an audience perspective character so she (and we) can observe the elevation of one special cat into the Heaviside Layer, and the new life that awaits them on the horizon. But who will Jellicle cat matriarch Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) select? Will it be boisterous Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo), or gluttonous Bustopher Jones (James Corden)? Gus the Theatre Cat (Ian McKellen)? Or the scheming Macavity (Idris Elba)?
But even these furtive attempts to impose a narrative don’t work. Victoria mostly acts as a doe-eyed cipher with little character of her own, and like the musical, the vast majority of the big-name characters pop in and out with a single number and are then sidelined. There’s a clear divide in the cast among the named actors (Elba, McKellen, Rebel Wilson) just having a grand old campy time licking hubcap-sized bowls of milk and screeching “meow!” and the troupe of trained dancers and actors who comprise most of the Jellicle cats. What few bits of dialogue are interspersed are functional at best, obnoxiously unfunny at worst; Rebel Wilson spends most of her time making cat puns that don’t even make sense for a cat to say (What does “don’t mess with a crazy cat lady!” mean when you, yourself, are a cat?), when she’s not eating even tinier human-hybrid mice and cockroaches dancing in formation. (Don’t ask.)
The biggest struggle is the pace: even at a mere 110 minutes, Cats drags, and the wildness of what you’re seeing eventually dissipates gives way to a bored sense of resignation. Hope you like minutes-long wordless ballet dance sequences, because there are plenty of them here.
As for the music, few of the numbers really impress — turns out we forgot that that most of the songs in Cats are, in fact, bad. Save, of course, for the possible exception of Jennifer Hudson‘s rendition of “Memory,” aka the one song from Cats everybody knows. Sure, she’s way too young to play Grizzabella, an aged cat looking back on her life with regret and nostalgia, but they’re clearly going for that Anne-Hathaway-as-Fantine moment with her big, snot-nosed closeup, and it comparatively works. The rest of the tracks, though, are dated duds, right down to the squelchy Casio hits and awkward rhythms.
By the time I walked out of Cats, I wasn’t even sure what a real cat looked like anymore.
And yet, there’s a part of me that’s perversely delighted by all this. The other film I saw that day, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, was bad too, but bad because it played it achingly studio-safe. Cats, on the other hand, must be seen to be believed. Hooper misses hard with his big creative choices, but at least he makes them and has somehow conned a studio into giving him hundreds of millions of dollars to do so. Wilson shoving her cat-furred CGI crotch in the audience’s face might be a horrible, terrifying idea, but at least it made me feel something. I’m actually kinda proud of everyone involved in this project: it’s been a good long while since I’ve seen an entire production team so wholly committed to so many crazy decisions all at once.
So by all means, make the Jellicle choice, get ripping high, and step into a theater for Tom Hooper’s Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats. It’s weird, and queer, and deliberately fetishistic, and you’ve never seen anything like it before… even if what you’re seeing should never touch human eyes.
Cats leaps out of the Uncanny Valley and pirouettes into theaters December 20th.
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