Cats (2019)

Dir. Tom Hooper. Starring Francesca Hayward, Robbie Fairchild, Judi Dench

The gamble that any production of Cats makes, whether it’s a stage show or a movie, is that the spectacle of the piece will outweigh the inherent strangeness of the material. The answer is a really hard “No!” for a lot of people for the musical itself, which I get, and why I suppose the direction the movie went was to exchange the spectacle of the costumes and the movement for the spectacle of CGI. “The spectacle of CGI” is about as self-defeating a phrase as I can imagine for a movie in our moviegoing time, because we (and I really do mean “we” here) are held at arm’s length by the perpetual intangibility of what’s on the screen. We know it’s grafted on with computers; the stakes of it are lessened because all of us have had to Ctrl+Z something before and recognize how easily it’s gone. There is more awe in the destruction of that model of the White House in Independence Day than there is in the destruction of CGI cities in a movie like San Andreas, let alone the destruction of bridges and trains in The Bridge on the River Kwai and The General. No matter how wrapped up we are in the story of a movie, the production of the movie seeps into it somehow. This is not theater, where production and presentation are, at the very least, temporally unified. In a movie we may not know how the effect happened, but we know it came from somewhere, and that knowledge that it’s from somewhere longs for that somewhere to be, well, “real.” There are few things I hope are less real than the catpeople of Cats, with their furry bodies and wriggly tails but aggressively human faces, hands, and feet.

What Cats is about, as a movie, is the funhouse mirror aspect of these catpeople interacting in a space which is too big for them. This is what Honey, I Shrunk the Kids is about too, but the difference between those two is the kid-shrinking movie knows, at all times, exactly how small the kids are and just how small that makes them in reference to a bowl of Cheerios, an ant, or their backyard. That mathematical precision is what makes that movie interesting, not Rick Moranis or Matt Frewer doing comic relief. But watching Cats, where these very humanoid “cats” wander around human settings and do basically anthropomorphic things, it’s clear that the mathematical rigor is just not there. There’s a fair bit of “Has anyone in this family even seen a chicken?” in the scale of this movie, and not in a fun way. The characters are so often much smaller than a cat, more like the size of a guinea pig, and as chuffed as I am by the possibility of Guinea Pigs or Chinchillas as spiritual sequels, it only deepens the uncanny valley that this movie is taking place within. Cats as a text makes very little effort to let you into “Jellicle” or “Heaviside Layer,” which is why the movie turns Victoria (Hayward) into a guide to whom everything must be explained. Yet explain as the movie will, every new foray into different buildings reimagines those bodies which are already hard enough to get used to. Think about that “Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer” sequence, where the titular two (Danny Collins and Naoimh Morgan) take Victoria around their house. It’s not like watching three cats cavort downstairs and jump on a bed and play with jewelry and joints of meat; we’re watching three weird Lilliputian mutates do those same things with their all-too-human digits. At that point the premise of the film itself (as it has at multiple other points already!) has fallen in on itself. In a movie where it feels like just about every choice falls flat, it’s this guiding concept of putting humans-as-cats into a human space which is oddly too big for them which makes the messiest splat on impact.

The movie chooses to run away from the weirdness of the story as much as it chooses to run from anything else. Victoria is the surrogate, and there is some exposition (but clearly never enough exposition) for the Jellicle Ball, the Heaviside Layer, and so forth. Macavity (Idris Elba) turns out to be just like the other cats in the movie. He is mad to get to the Heaviside Layer, and hoping that disappearing his competition to a barge will leave him as the only eligible cat to be Jellicle chosen. Disappearing Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson) and Bustopher Jones (James Corden) makes him seem like the hero of the story and not its villain; in all seriousness, this need to give Macavity a motivation is ineffective at best in its need to stamp more logic on something fantastical.

The characters are streamlined, too, which is understandable in this picture with a giant cast, but a little awkward nonetheless. Mr. Mistoffelees (Davidson) winds up singing his own song, which is cutesy, but the lyrics have mostly just changed “he” to “I,” which is significantly less neat than changing the lyrics in “Old Deuteronomy” from “he” to she” for the benefit of Judi Dench. Victoria basically eliminates the other young female cats from participating in the story when they aren’t hissing at Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson). The singers they’ve brought in to play Rum Tum Tugger and Bombalurina (Jason Derulo and Taylor Swift, respectively), are given one showcase number apiece and then absented from the movie, though those characters have a little more weight in the show. The Pekes and Pollicles stuff is, probably by necessity, excised, but even doing that reads merely as an attempt for a more streamlined narrative that the original material never had. At a basic level, this is what I was left most confused by after the movie had ended, even more than I was confused about the physics of Jennyanydots unzipping herself. This is such unwieldy stuff that it seems pointless to try to turn it into something with a blandly simple yet equally ludicrous story to add a little bit of pointless late-movie plank-walking tension. Nor does the movie feel like it’s trying to handle Cats‘ slow start or finish all that differently than the stage show does. This movie looks weird! It feels weird! And hoping we’ll find it less weird because Rebel Wilson and Jason Derulo do a couple of numbers does not leaven the weirdness even a little bit: it only makes the movie even harder to get into.

There’s only one sequence in the movie that feels like it’s mildly successful, though we have to note ahead of time that it doesn’t make any sense spatially either, and that’s the Skimbleshanks sequence. Steven McRae, another West End import, plays him and does better tapdancing than you can see in the Best Picture-winning The Broadway Melody of 1929. (How’s that for a silver lining!) McRae, like fellow West End vet Robbie Fairchild (who plays the film’s MC, Munkustrap), is a kind of stabilizing force that the movie desperately needs. In pants and shoes he is significantly less catlike than some of his costars, but he is also more than significantly less creepy. Watching that number go on, McRae’s anonymity to someone like Derulo or Dench or Ian McKellen is deeply refreshing, and his skill level is actually accentuated by the movie rather than dimmed by its goals.

Maybe Tom Hooper is, like his ersatz partner in grime Rob Marshall, is a sleeper agent out to make people hate movie musicals. Where Marshall is a man who can only think through a single type of production design, Hooper seems to be actively disinterested in the music part of the musical. I can understand why so little of this movie is given over to highlighting the Steven McRaes and Robbie Fairchilds of its cast: the hope is that, as if it’s 1965, we will be drawn to the motion picture musical because of the fullness of its famous cast. And yet if the goal is to make a good movie, the beginning point must be highlighting the people who actually have talent in this setting. That’s McRae and Fairchild, and to some extent it’s Hayward as well, who never does seem to get enough chances to dance in this movie despite that being her day job. It is not anyone in this movie who has been nominated for an Oscar or won a Grammy, because all they do is further this self-destructive impulse Hooper has in making musicals, which is to rid them of the music. How tinny and small the chorus sounds, how limited the scope of the orchestra. Giving as much of the movie’s singing to Dench or McKellen or its other big names as it does just means that Hooper’s aim of never hearing someone sing all that well is easier to attain. (This is a pernicious little trend of not caring if someone can sing all that well because it’s more “natural” or “real,” but like, I’m watching a musical, not Bicycle Thieves. Different genres have different rules, and it is incredible that this has to be debated.)

Jennifer Hudson seems like a good choice for Grizabella, a person who is famous for hitting notes to deep center in a role where smacking those notes is the whole purpose. And yet in the first performance of “Memory,” the camera shakes as Hudson’s voice shakes and scratches. (The performance of the movie’s new Oscarbait song, “Beautiful Ghosts,” is also in close-up but without the shaking camera or the purposefully marred vocals.) Her vowels are contorted and odd in the money performance at the end of the film. It’s the same playbook as “I Dreamed a Dream” in Les Miserables, which was a dumb playbook when it was about struggling 19th Century French untouchables and which is something like unintelligible when it’s about CGI cats. Maybe bad decisions make interesting stories, but bad decisions, especially not in this incredible volume, do not make watchable movies.

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