Growing up, I was raised on a steady diet of musical theater soundtracks by my mother. Not only that but one of the ways she helped to socialize me was encouraging me to participate in Children’s Theatre productions and ensuring that I got to witness full-scale Broadway musicals. Needless to say, Andrew Lloyd Webber was a frequent musical presence in my life, with his arguably out-there musical CATS taking over a good chunk of my childhood. Based on T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats”, the musical is a whimsical, arguably fantasmical time that has become a bit more of a hard sell to modern audiences who are unfamiliar with the original source material. That’s why when I heard that award-winning director Tom Hooper had chosen the property to adapt next, I was curious to see whether or not such an ambitious choice would pay off. Unfortunately, the direction and creative choices made in the film worked heavily against its success.
The film focuses on a tribe of cats, who refer to themselves as Jellicle Cats, who must decide yearly which one will ascend to the Heaviside Layer and come back to a new life. Throughout the course of the movie, the audience is introduced to each cat that is making its bid for being selected to ascend by the leader Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench). And, for the most part, it goes fairly in order from what I remember in the original musical and in Eliot’s book. However, there were quite a lot of changes made to the plot in order to make the story more palatable for a modern-day audience. So much so it was hard not to think that the film was almost an entirely different version of what musical theater geeks would remember. In some ways, the changes that were made worked. But, at times, I felt like it also took away the magic and whimsy and overall silliness that made the original musical so endearing.
The first most noticeable change is that the majority of the film does not take place in a junkyard. In the original musical, the setting is firmly rooted in the junkyard setting as the central location for the Jellicle Ball and the selection for who will ascend to the Heaviside Layer. However, the scope of the film takes place through a variety of places, where we can see where each of the Jellicles reside and give further insight into the personalities and exploits. I thought this decision was a major bonus because it helped to connect the scenes and numbers more in a way that made the plot make a tad bit more sense. We also got to see the broader scope of the world in which these characters operated in, lending itself to creating a more fantasy-like atmosphere. This is arguably something that the musical falls short on from the original T.S. Eliot book.
The one downside to this change of having multiple settings in the film was that it made it a lot more difficult for it to hide how these were actors pretending to be cats. No amount of CGI or motion capture could really hide that. Neither can the purposely larger sets that apparently were created to make all of the characters look a lot smaller than they actually are. While it would have been cinematically boring and would have made the storytelling a lot more static for audiences, there was a performance-related element that greatly benefited from being in that junkyard setting. With the junkyard setting, it’s far more confined which restrains the movements of the actors which I think makes it a lot easier to get up close and personal and embody those typical feline characteristics. And, as a cat lady who has literally interacted and studied felines for a good portion of my life, that embodiment of feline behavior in CATS is very important in helping audiences suspend their disbelief.
The other change can be seen through the character of Victoria (Francesca Hayward) in the film. She almost seems like a fusion of two characters from the musical – Victoria and Jemima. In the musical, Victoria the White Cat is a primary dance role that requires extensive ballet training, with no solo singing parts. Jemima, on the other hand, is the youngest member of the Jellicles and is idealistic and accepting of others. Reflecting on the two characters, I’d say that this is probably the route that was taken in giving the character more screen time. The decision to also make Victoria stand in as the audience’s perspective as she is being introduced to the world of the Jellicles is a smart one, but it is a departure from the frequent usage of the fourth wall breaking in the musical. Don’t despair though. That fourth wall gets broken in the oddly comical “The Ad-dressing of Cats” delivered by Judi Dench’s Old Deuteronomy towards the end of the movie.
The most blatant change, which is arguably the one that has gotten the most notice in media coverage, would be in the physical depiction of the cats. In the musical, they generally wear tight suits and have heavy makeup that helps to create that feline-like illusion. This combined with what I mentioned previously about the tight junkyard setting makes it easier for the actors to bring the world and the characters from the musical to life for the audience. However, the usage of motion capture suits and the knowledge that the fur, skin, tails, and ears were added in post, was not done well. For some characters like Old Deuteronomy and Laurie Davidson’s Mr. Mistoffelees, it worked. It wasn’t super distracting and didn’t take me entirely out of whatever strange fantasy director Tom Hooper was trying to relay to us. However, some of the character designs were either not blended out thoroughly in post to hide the transition from the suit to the cat-like visage they were attempting to embody or they were just plain creepy. Both of these would, in particular, apply to the random moments during the film where children portrayed mice. And the fact that several of the actors onscreen broke character in terms of maintaining their feline-like movements and would at times just casually stand there did not help to sell me on the fact that we were supposed to be watching magical Jellicle CATS.
I want to say that the cast all tried their best to sell us on the fact that they were, in fact, Jellicle Cats. However, whether due to the fact that they did what I consider to be breaking character or the costume design or what have you, I was not buying what they were trying to sell. It’s a shame really because you have such a very notable cast. You have James Corden, Judi Dench, Jason Derulo, Idris Elba, Jennifer Hudson, Ian McKellen, and Rebel Wilson who all really do their best to elevate the characters that they embody. Ian McKellan, Rebel Wilson, and James Corden, in particular, are hilarious. And I have to give Rebel a shout-out for getting into positions that anyone who owns a cat knows are perfectly realistic for grooming purposes. I think though that the ensemble cast who take up the majority of the time on the screen could have spent more time in whatever cat school the entire cast apparently attended to learn how to move more like a cat because there were multiple instances where their stances would be too human for me to justify in any other musical production for this property.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the music since that is arguably the most important part of any musical venture. Composed by legendary composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, the music still holds up after all of this time. Like I mentioned earlier, it was hard not to feel nostalgic while hearing those familiar synthesizer sounds wash over me in my seat. I will point out a couple of songs though that stood out and left an impression on me. I’m going to start off with the one I’m sure everyone is dying to hear about – Jennifer Hudson’s take on “Memory”. Her voice is very distinctive and the level of emotion she carries within her performance cannot be denied. And once she hits that one particular note – ya’ll know which one – the shivers will go up and down your spine. The next performance I’m sure everyone is dying to hear about is Taylor Swift’s rendition of “Macavity the Mystery Cat”. It was okay. It wasn’t mind-blowing, but that particular song isn’t necessarily one that I’d describe as a showstopper in general. Then there’s Victoria’s big song, which I just can’t get behind. Francesca Hayward’s voice in this song is not really great for this song due to the range that is needed. When she aims for the higher notes, she sounds really pitchy which takes away from what could be a great song. It’s unfortunate, especially given how much the spotlight shines on her in the film, but it can’t be ignored.
The choreography left a lot to be desired. Don’t get me wrong. Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler is immensely talented and I’ve enjoyed their previous work. However, in my opinion, the choreography direction greatly contributed to my impression of watching a movie of humans masquerading as cats. The dance styles featured onscreen range from classical ballet to contemporary, hip-hop to jazz, street dance to tap. They were all performed to perfection. However, in combination with what I can only assume was direction given to the cast as well as having to navigate the more varied scope in terms of stage design, the choreography greatly took away from the impression that we were watching “cats”. To people reading this wondering why I’m harping on this so much, one of the memories (no pun intend) that I have as an adolescent after watching the live-musical production of CATS was how much all of the cast members acted and moved like the actual felines. The choreography was also designed to encourage and maintain that impression so, as you left the theater, you felt like you had watched felines perform rather than staring at human beings in suits living their most awkward cat life.
Overall, CATS itself is an ambitious undertaking, but I don’t think the ambition can make up for the limitations in the overall direction of the film. It’s also not a version I’d recommend being anyone’s first experience in witnessing the renowned musical. The added dialogue and transitional scenes are helpful for audiences not familiar with the musical or the original T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats”. However, CATS as a whole is just a hard sell unless you really lean into the more fantasmical elements from Eliot’s original prose. That and actually have the actors really embrace the catlike qualities within their characters i.e. stay in character. Because without that, the audience is not going to walk away feeling like they watched a bunch of Jellicle Cats. Instead, they are going to walk away wondering why these obviously human actors were doing pretending to masquerade as CATS.
CATS will open in theaters on December 25, 2019.