Much has been made of the bizarre nature of Tom Hooper’s movie adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical adaptation of T S Elliot’s book of cat poems and sure, there’s no denying that there are a bunch of weird choices in the movie, but none perhaps as weird as the decision to make a movie version of this in the first place.
When a white kitten called Victoria (Francesca Hayward) is abandoned on the streets of London one night, she finds herself in the company of the Jellicle cats, a tribe of felines who are gathering to celebrate the Jellicle Ball, a once-a-year celebration where Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) will select one lucky cat to ascend to a new life in the Heaviside Layer. While the various cats prepare their acts to impress Old Deuteronomy, the malevolent alley cat (Idris Elba) plots to steal the prize by eliminating the competition.
Lloyd Webber’s wildly successful musical is, first and foremost, a theatrical experience. It lacks much of an actual story beyond the vaudevillian cat talent contest so it’s not really a narrative musical per se. It’s a cavalcade of singing and dancing with some stand-out show tunes but in bringing it to the big screen, Tom Hooper attempts to make it something more significant, more cohesive and fails abysmally thanks to a succession of strange artistic decisions.
The realisation of the cats themselves is a deeply disconcerting exercise in combining the unnerving qualities of the uncanny valley with the almost fetishized anthropomorphisation of felis catus that superficially seems designed to appeal to a furry audience but, in execution, is so off-putting that this film is more likely to quench rather than fan the flames of that particular desire. There’s an almost relentlessness to the film’s bizarreness, a litany of peculiarity that keeps pushing the boundary of common sense, typified in the moment, quite early on, while you’re still trying to get to grips with humanoid felines who look like they just stepped out of James Cameron’s special edition of the “Doctor Who” story “Survival” where the movie asks you to go even further and accept anthropomorphic mice and even cockroaches with human faces – who are then randomly consumed as snacks by dancing cats during a song and dance number.
It’s like Disney’s “Zootropolis”, fed through Google’s Deep Dream algorithm.
More strangeness abounds in some of the casting decisions. You can tell everything’s weirdly off-kilter because James Corden actually isn’t awful in it, and Rebel Wilson, Ian McKellen and Idris Elba seem to be having a lot of fun if nothing else. Despite the surreal chaos all around her, “Cats” still showcases Francesca Hayward as a genuine movie star, dominating the screen and drawing the eye no matter what outré activity is going on around her. Likewise, Laurie Davidson makes for a likeable Mr Mistoffelees and creates an appealing rapport with Hayward as hints of a burgeoning romance between their two characters provide the movie with one of its many neglected opportunities for any kind of character development. Judi Dench, on the other hand, proves that she is the same vocal gift to feline-themed musicals what Pierce Brosnan was to Greek-set Swedish jukebox musicals
In many ways, the closest movie relative to “Cats” may be “Suspiria”, a century of minutes (it feels every moment of its run time) devoted to cats surrendering to ‘the dance’ but what I was most reminded of while watching it was a CBeebies pantomime. I saw it with the family on Christmas eve and, as that kind of crazy, celebrity dress-up, pseudo-“Strictly Come Dancing” theme week variety show, it kind of works. As a movie, though, it’s an utter CATastrophe.