Um, catlike? Supplied by Universal Pictures.
Um, catlike? Supplied by Universal Pictures.

MOVIE REVIEW: ‘What the hell just happened?!’

Cats may be one of the most anticipated and reviled movies of 2019, and that was all before it opened.

Many were expecting the worst after that very strange trailer dropped and the filmmakers started talking about the "digital fur technology" that essentially made all the actors look like the Sun Baby from the Teletubbies.

But now that it's here, is it an amazing, visual spectacle or a total trainwreck?

It's neither.

It's not the disaster so many feared it would be, but it's also not some eye-popping must-see experience. It mostly ranges from "that was cool" to "what the hell just happened?!" and then "has it been two hours yet, it feels like it's been two hours".

 

Francesca Hayward is a principal dancer in the Royal Ballet in London. Picture: Universal Pictures via AP
Francesca Hayward is a principal dancer in the Royal Ballet in London. Picture: Universal Pictures via AP

Cats will have its devoted fans, especially among Andrew Lloyd Webber devotees, the musical theatre crowd and other stage performers and enthusiasts who will purr at the dance choreography, the songs or the earnest vibe.

Those guys will love it, no doubt, and there is something laudable about the sheer audacity of director Tom Hooper's ambition.

But Cats is far too strange and patience draining to have as much broad appeal as something like the crowd-pleasing The Greatest Showman which, while a mediocre story, had toe-tapping earworms that drove audiences flocking back for repeat screenings.

Whether this movie version of Cats works isn't a question of whether you "get" or "like" the 38-year-old stage production, it's whether this story and execution translates to a different medium and works as a film on a flat screen.

Though if you are a long-time Cats fan, you'll obviously be more open to its bizarreness.

 

Sure, he has a hat. Picture: Universal Pictures via AP
Sure, he has a hat. Picture: Universal Pictures via AP

 

Cat boobs. Picture: Universal Pictures via AP
Cat boobs. Picture: Universal Pictures via AP

 

For the uninitiated, the story centres on a group of London cats, a tribe called Jellicle Cats, who once a year gather for the Jellicle Ball, a talent contest of sorts in which the winner (the Jellicle Choice) is judged by their leader, Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench), to be worthy of ascending to the Heaviside layer to be reborn.

(It's hard to not read that rebirth as a weird euthanasia and reincarnation thing.)

Our entree into the Jellicle world is Victoria the White Cat (British ballerina Francesca Hayward), a role that's been bumped up for the film, a young cat that's been dumped by her humans.

Through Victoria, we learn about this Jellicle universe, the Ball, the Choice and villain Macavity (Idris Elba) who tries to cheat his way to victory.

Everything is played out in song, with little dialogue or narrative momentum to break it up for any viewers who don't want to sit through two hours of only song and dance.

Many of the sequences are impressive with flash choreography and truly great skill on display from Hayward and other performers including Les Twins, Australian Steven McRae, and, jeepers, Jason Derulo (who doesn't get to say his own name even once!).

 

Call me by my name. Picture: Universal Pictures via AP
Call me by my name. Picture: Universal Pictures via AP

 

Jennifer Hudson gets the big belter of the flick as Grizabella, the spurned shabby cat who gets Cats' signature song Memory. Hudson is vocally so strong but the choice to really dial up Grizabella's pitiable state means the character's patheticness (complete with snot quivering on her lips) is more distracting than empathetic.

Cats' totally bonkers story and execution isn't something that translates naturally to the screen. It's not just that you'll struggle to reconcile the oversized sets on which the characters (sometimes behaving like cats and sometimes like humans) prance around.

The "digital fur technology" also sometimes blurs the contact between the performer and the set and gives it a more CGI effect than intended.

And sometimes the handheld camera work, meant to convey lithe movements like cats, feels more like you've been plunged into a VR headset with the resulting motion-sickness headache to match.

 

Judi Dench was meant to be in the West End production at an earlier point. Picture: Universal Pictures via AP
Judi Dench was meant to be in the West End production at an earlier point. Picture: Universal Pictures via AP

If you spend too long trying to figure out the internal logic of the movie, you're going to be exhausted.

Yes, Elba will have pecs when no one else does, some of the female felines, Taylor Swift included, have breast mounds while others don't, and, no, it doesn't make sense why some cats have shoes, spats and fur coats on top of their fur.

They also sing and walk around like bipeds, so you just have to go with the whole "oh, there's magic in this world" thing and be done with asking too many questions, if you can.

All the distractions take you away from a thin story in a format that requires something much more emotionally involving to shake off the gimmick. You never find yourself invested in any of the characters' fates.

In theatre, there's a natural distancing and awareness that what you're seeing is staged. As a movie, Cats doesn't reach the level of suspended disbelief to be affecting or satisfying.

You might find that in the end, you're still a dog person.

Rating: 2.5/5

Cats is in cinemas on Boxing Day

Share your movies and TV obsessions | @wenleima

Francesca Hayward as Victoria and Robbie Fairchild as Munkustrap are beautiful dancers. Picture: Universal Pictures via AP
Francesca Hayward as Victoria and Robbie Fairchild as Munkustrap are beautiful dancers. Picture: Universal Pictures via AP


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