Andrew Lloyd Webber’s long-running dance Cats the musical could have been a glorious holiday gift to the world had the film adaptation been better. I’ve spent a lot of time this year discussing how strange Cats are as a story, and believe me, a story in which a bunch of cats all introduce themselves before one of them dies and goes to cat heaven is inherently strange.
Cats had the potential to be a joyful and light movie, despite the public’s generally baffled reaction to its existence. The musical’s plot may be thin, but a vibrant, fun spark runs through it; after all, it is based on a book of children’s poems by T.S. Eliot.
Cats had the potential to be a huge disappointment, and I was worried that it wouldn’t be able to overcome either its eccentric nature or Tom Hooper’s tendency to eliminate all traces of emotional nuance from his films and keep the pathos at a constant level of 11.
Hooper’s previous attempt at a musical adaptation, 2012’s Les Misérables, was nominated for an Academy Award but widely panned for the director’s sloppy camera techniques like close-ups and wide shots. As someone who enjoyed the musical for its spectacle and compelling human drama, I found his revisions disappointing.
Sorry, Pals, But It Didn’t Work Out
The movie Cats almost succeeds on a few levels. While the scale is uneven in a ridiculous way, the set nevertheless looks great. When the camera stays stationary long enough to show off the dancers, it’s spectacular. The song is the same, and I like it.
The scene in which Judi Dench’s Old Deuteronomy gravely advises us, the audience, to call our cats like this: “O, Cat,” is my favorite example of the film’s tongue-in-cheek humor. For me, there was one musical scene that came the closest to conveying Cats’ cheery playfulness.
Here’s a Quick Rundown of all the Ways
The film cats the musical shows us many things that are not a bunch of joyful dancing cats, even when the music is at its most upbeat and danceable.
Tell me, fellow travelers: what do you imagine when you hear these high notes? Do you perhaps see a line of bewildered but brave cats stumbling through the dark streets of London? Or maybe just one cat bounding into the scene with the glee, grandeur, and skill that only a cat (or a person pretending to be a cat) could offer to a melody that bobs and weaves like this one?
Or, perhaps you’ve witnessed the painful thud of an abandoned cat’s body as it bounces off the concrete of an alley step? Tom “both feet in the bucket of cement” Hooper seemed most enthusiastic about which of these two possibilities. Sorry to break it to you, but your hopes for the former are misplaced.
In the opening scene of the movie cats, the musical has a cat in a sack being beaten to the tune of the score. Something about this score makes me want to hurl a cat down a flight of stairs at the finale, Tom Hooper. Who did you hurt?! This sort of dramatic opening might have set the tone for the entire movie, but instead, it just feels off.
Can you please specify the feeling we’re meant to get at this point? Which is more shocking: the sight of a pet being cruelly abandoned or the sound of a catchy musical theme designed to capture the essence of a cat’s mystery and ambiguity?
What About Cats the Musical?
Despite repeated warnings, Hooper continues to force-feed us visual material that has nothing to do with the audio. The staging seems to blatantly disregard the needs of the music, with the camera frequently zooming in and out for no apparent reason and following cats around the edges of the massive set while other things fill the background. Visually, it’s not clear where our attention should go.
Due to the audience’s inability to track where they were in the room, there were multiple occasions when significant characters were introduced unexpectedly, eliciting laughs from the screening I attended. Instead of merely cutting to an unknown face, a film musical should mimic the stage version by dramatically seeding character entrances with appropriate blocking, lighting, and musical cues. If even the most basic elements of your movie musical may be mocked for being too jarring or confusing, you know you have a problem.
Unfortunately, the group dance that should take precedence (i.e., the item you came to see, cats the musical) is often relegated to the background due to the sloppy staging. It drives you crazy! Since Blankenbuehler’s choreography for the 2016 Broadway revival had plenty of space for big ensemble dances, Hooper likely is to blame for the lack of group dancing here.
The Jellicle Ball, which is meant to be the huge dancing cats in the musical, has devolved into a series of random single dance-offs between individual cats. However, because of our lack of familiarity with these particular cats, we cannot be bothered to care about their dance-offs. We really wanted to see a bunch of cats dancing together, so that’s why we came. Tom Hooper, please give us several wide, full-body views of rows and rows of dancing cats. Stop Talking and give us The Dancing Cats!
Like this, You Know
It adds many additional features, but those add to Cats’ chaos. Cats the musical, may seem incomprehensible before you realize that new background information has been added to the show’s seemingly random and underdeveloped storyline. You would be completely wrong.
In the opening scene, Victoria (Francesca Hayward), a discarded and mistreated cat, is thrown on the street by her previous owners and is instantly initiated into the unfathomable realm of Jellicle-ness. Those happenings follow one another without a break. To make matters worst, she never has a chance to wallow in her sorrow. Thud, bounce, and thump, and here you are in your new existence, young man.
In addition to poor pace, this exposition is poorly defined. The film takes it a step further, presenting the concept that Victoria must dramatically discover her hidden Jellicle identity. Given this new information, it’s safe to assume that Victoria’s story will conclude with her learning the mysterious person’s identity. Nope! That never occurs.
If one or two of them were offered as part of cats the musical, I wouldn’t need or want an explanation for them. However, a big, incomprehensible tangle results when every picture confronts us with a heap of these never-ending puzzles.