Ceci n’est pas un film: Cats (2019)

I don’t understand the visceral hate of Cats (2019), the latest offering from Tom Hooper. It’s a perfectly respectable recording of a stage musical performance, touched up with a bit of CGI.

What? It’s meant to be a film, you say? Well, that does change things considerably.

Les Misérables (2012) should’ve been proof enough that Hooper has no worldly idea what to do with a film camera (Film Crit Hulk wrote a comprehensive explanation of this), but apparently winning an Oscar really does still mean something, Green Book (2018) notwithstanding. The result of the industry’s trust in Hooper is this weird amalgamation of film and stage show featuring weird digital amalgamations of humans and cats (and humans and mice, and humans and cockroaches). I personally had no problem at all with the digital fur technology, but the sight of cockroaches with human faces being eaten alive by Rebel Wilson’s character is some seriously Lynchean shit. Among the innumerable scathing reviews, not a few found the film impossible to grade at all. I think this sui generis concoction is simply due to a mismatch of medium, material, and director.

First, a plot summary: White-furred Victoria (Francesca Hayward) gets dumped by her owners and finds herself among the Jellicle Cats, who are preparing auditions for the annual Jellicle Ball, at which elderly Jellicle Cult leader Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) will make the Jellicle Choice and allow one of them to (literally) ascend to the Heavyside Layer to begin a new cat life—but one feline hopeful, the evil Macavity (Idris Elba), plays dirty and whisks the other contestants to a barge on the Thames. That’s it; that’s the plot.

Structurally, the film can be split into two acts and a weird fourth wall-breaking coda. In the first act, outsider and audience surrogate Victoria is guided around and introduced to the colorful cast of Jellicle Cats by Munkustrap (Robbie Fairchild). Hayward doesn’t have much to do here, and even her facial expression rarely changes from open-mouthed wonder. Fairchild, though more active, is also unmemorable when compared to the likes of Jennyanydots (Wilson), The Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo), and Bustopher Jones (James Corden), just to name a few. But here I should also mention that, since the cats are introducing themselves, they’re self-consciously putting on a performance, and T.S. Eliot’s whimsical taxonomical poems (sometimes altered by Andrew Lloyd Webber) render these showcats as types instead of characters. In this sense, Wilson and Corden are typecasted, and Derulo is given the cinematic newcomer treatment.

It’s here that the film suffers a medium mismatch. The stage musical was all about immersive spectacle, so its goal was to be as big and loud and brash as possible. But film is necessarily limited by the frame: You can only look from one angle in one direction at a time. I think the original idea was for Victoria to guide the camera, as most outsiders tend to do in films about hermetically sealed and semiotically complete fantasy worlds such as this one. But Hooper has no clue how to stage and block the dance numbers to let the camera take it all in. Perhaps counterintuitively, the camera should not simply be placed among the dancers in emulation of Victoria’s line of sight; after all, she’s still part of the film. You have to deliberately choreograph the numbers so that a blank space is left for the camera, and what goes on in front of the camera needs to be differentiated from what happens behind it. Quick editing doesn’t make up for it, either: In a cinematic version of the old fable about blind villagers encountering a giant land mammal, twenty brief close-ups of an elephant from oblique angles does not a complete elephant make. This problem dogs (sorry) the film most egregiously when the dance numbers have no nominal lead; I’ll never forget when the film cuts away from Hayward, principal ballerina at the Royal Ballet, mid-pirouette.

With the introduction of social pariah and elderly has-been Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson), the film slides into the second act, in which Victoria gains some agency and influences the Jellicle Choice. JHud gives the most complex and moving performance of the film when she sings “Memory,” and she does it twice. We remember it as a sad song, but it’s also angry in that Grizabella is both haunted and taunted by memories of her glory days. Hudson sells all of it, fluidly emoting along with the lyrics. This sets us up for the emotional gut-punch of Hayward capably singing “Beautiful Ghosts,” a new song that answers both emotions: longing for what Grizabella has had, and gently reproaching her for her ressentiment. When Victoria sings “I’ll dance with these beautiful ghosts,” referring to the Jellicle Cats, it’s with a sense of not community, surprisingly, but resignation. (Also, Hayward dodges the high note that Taylor Swift sings over the end credits, instead ending on the whisper that some fans wanted when the single was released ahead of the film.)

Speaking of Swift, she plays Bombalurina, Macavity’s lead henchcat, and has a naughty (but not dirty) number to introduce Macavity. Honestly, with all the cuts and weird camera angles, it’s more like a music video than anything else, and her acting is similarly conveyed in brief bursts. It’s no wonder Swift got the part based only off of her unsuccessful audition for Éponine in Hooper’s Les Mis, as playing Bombalurina merely requires her to do what she’s been doing with aplomb since at least The 1989 World Tour (2015). Even Bombalurina’s dancing is recognizably Swiftian.

Macavity’s gatecrash is preceded by, among other things, Ian McKellen’s turn as Gus the Theatre Cat, another washed-up cat star. McKellen is the only actor to truly understand what he’s gotten himself into, and his performance is perfectly calibrated between stagey and camera-oriented. Whereas Hudson delivers an enhanced concert performance and Dench goes for naturalist interiority, McKellen gives us a broad stage performance that’s toned down to accommodate Hooper’s obsession with close-ups. And it’s when we compare Hudson’s and McKellen’s numbers that we finally see what the story is really about: “the Trauma Of Old Age and the Sweet Release of Death,” as Aja Romano puts it in her excellent comprehensive primer on everything Cats.

But you’d be hard-pressed to remember that owing to the catchy songs, energetic dancing (choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler), and sheer spectacle of it all. It’s a fun time as long as you go in with no expectations of story or character or empathy or suspension of disbelief or spatially coherent editing or anything remotely resembling either humans or cats (or mice or cockroaches). Just don’t think of it as a film, and you’ll be fine.

Editor’s note: Make sure to read Film Crit Hulk’s love letter to Cats! And read this hilarious account of watching the film while high on mushrooms.

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