Though now essentially synonymous with the musical, Andrew Lloyd Webber power ballad Memory wasn’t originally in Cats. Or rather, more accurately, the T. S. Elliot poem upon which the song is primarily based – Grizabella the Glamour Cat – never made the published edition of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. It was, as history recalls, considered too sad for children. Heaven only knows, then, what history will make of Tom Hooper’s orgasmically charged film adaptation of the show. It will, at least, surely stick in the memory, for better or worse. Mostly worse.
The fact of the matter is, and there’s no escaping it, Hooper’s Cats is frequently nothing short of the stuff of nightmares. Ever since the film’s now infamous trailer made its debut, the writing has been on the wall with this one. In a rare twist, it was no misjudgment back then to label the whole thing thoroughly creepy. In spite of the allegedly heavy CGI – ‘digital fur technology’ – tweaking that has occurred in the run up to the film’s release, Cats as a whole is worse than initially feared. While it will surprise few to learn that the film’s characters are presented in quite the most bizarre case of anthropomorphic misalignment to ever hit screens, who could have predicted so surreal a sexual experience? A veritable orgy of feline eroticism. One word: Pusspiria.
Bound in skin tight leotards, these kitties writhe often against the floor and each other, all under the watchful eye of an apparently aphrodisiacal moon. Watch in horror as background characters gasp with sensual pleasure at the antics at those in the fore. Squirm as semi-naked performers flaunt their disturbingly digitised furry forms with undue pomp and pride. The effect would be dismal even if each cat’s face did twitch out of shape with every movement too fast for the computer to keep up. Sometimes ambition outstrips capability and often it is wise to recognise that.
Far from helping proceedings is a plot so threadbare that one could easily forget its existence. Francesca Hayward – new to cinema but Royal Ballet Principal – plays Victoria, the White Cat, who finds herself abandoned on the streets of a bizarrely empty London as the film opens. As though things weren’t bad enough for her, Victoria is soon subjected to the ritualistic embrace of a band or alley cats going by the name ‘Jellicles’. One by one, we are introduced to the more significant Jellicle cats, via talent show songs intended to prove them worthy of ascension to the Heaviside Layer and the new life that awaits them there. That’s basically it. A screenplay by Hooper and Rocketman’s Lee Hall does its best to beef things up, primarily with the elevation of Idris Elba’s Macavity the Mystery Cat to de facto villain, but there ain’t much there. Instead, a melee of extravagant song and dance routines, not to mention a string of A-list names, are called upon to demand attention. Some do, some don’t.
To the credit of all involved, Cats is not so twisted in presentation that it is impossible to admire the choreography of its more impressive showstoppers. Steven McRae – the so called ‘modern day Fred Astaire’ – nails a tap inspired routine for railway cat Skimbleshanks, while French hip hop legends Les Twins embody the film’s successful inclusion of more modern movement styles. There’s pleasing anarchy in the execution of Danny Collins and Naoimh Morgan’s jazzy Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer number and charming naïveté in Laurie Davidson’s portrayal of the magical Mr. Mistoffelees. As for the names, Rebel Wilson and James Corden arrive on comic autopilot as Jennyanydots and Bustopher Jones but Taylor Swift is, at least, a revelation as sultry aide to Elba. Dame Judi Dench must be commended for holding her own as a gender switched Old Deuteronomy, while the likes of Sir Ian McKellen, Jason Derulo and Ray Winstone fail to hide their embarrassment. Who can blame them? Here is a film that asks Wilson to scratch her own crotch and eat and handful of human faced cockroaches.
For all this, Cats might have at least worked within the weirdness were its cinematic faults not so deep cut. Strip away the glitter and random neon lighting and you will find precious little emotional resonance here. Jennifer Hudson might convince as outcast glamour cat Grizabella but she’s the exception that proves the rule. To be a visual misfire is one thing but a tonal, developmental and narratival one too? It’s not good.