Cats is one of the strangest films ever made. Adapted from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s long running musical, almost no changes have been made to the structure of the story. We have a cat named Victoria (Francesca Hayward) who is abandoned seemingly in the middle of London. She then meets a gang of street cats who refer to themselves as “Jellical Cats” and proceed to individually sing songs about themselves and their personalities. They are all trying to compete for the attentions of a cat named Old Deuteronomy who will select one cat to die and be reincarnated into a new life. Also at least two of the cats have magical powers.
The bulk of the film is the cats singing one song each introducing themselves. Most of the cats do not interact with each other outside of their songs. There are very few dialogue sequences and only a handful of meaningful interactions between characters (I can recall three). After introducing Victoria it’s almost an hour before her abandonment is actually addressed. The majority of the film might best be described as hi-jinks with the cats simply singing and occasionally interacting with their inconsistently large environment. This mustn’t be mistaken for humour, which is often cringe-worthy and awkwardly inserted into the songs, often perpetrated by James Cordon or Rebel Wilson.
The film is not friendly to newcomers or anyone unfamiliar with the origins of the concept of cats as a series of nonsense poems. Words like Jellical are thrown around but not in such a way that makes their meaning clear. We don’t need a character to spell out the meaning of these concepts but we do need some form of context to indicate whether a term is desirable or an insult or factual.
Much of the feedback to the film, even as far back as the first trailer, has focussed on the computer generated effects that transform the performers into the titular cats. Apparently this involved having the actors perform their roles in skinsuits which later had fur digitally layered on to them. The effect, however, looks more like they’ve created entirely new characters and awkwardly pasted the key features of the actors on top of their heads. Features float strangely in the heads of the beings we are encouraged to think of as cats. This is except everyone’s hands which for some bizarre reason are completely untouched.
This coupled with the slinky movements that have been choreographed lend the film a lurid unease. Some performers feel more naked than others. Idris Elba wears a large fur coat throughout the film but once this is shed in the final act, there’s a bizarre sense of watching Idris Elba awkwardly pasted onto a muscular younger man who just happens to be quite furry. Other little details like Judi Dench’s tiny legs or Ian Mckellans slender frame exposed from the waist down all creates an uneasy
An effect of this is that half the cast is unrecognisable, it’s more distracting when they are recognisable and any kind of physical performance is completely robbed of weight. If any of these actors really can dance and if any of the dances are really being performed then the method of editing and the abundance of artifice in every shot means it’s impossible to tell. There is no moment where the film clearly wants you to feel in awe of the physicality achieved by the actors. In fact everything feels like a distraction.
The songs are also almost unchanged which does date the music somewhat. Although the melodies are of course as catchy and memorable as they ever were, the synth and electronic organ heavy soundtrack feels very out of place with the computer generated aesthetic. The result is sometimes humorously campy. The new song doesn’t feel out of place and indeed actually constitutes a rare moment of interaction between characters. Perhaps more new music could have been written to bond these cats a bit.
There is something utterly fascinating about Cats. It’s a film like no other both in terms of aesthetic and structure. It’s a film too uniquely inept to be truly boring. It’s a consistently amusing mess that is compelling in how it fails to make use of it’s new medium. One of those bad films that simply must be seen and understood.