Where to begin with Cats, the poem-turned-musical-turned-film-turned-internet-punchline? Ever since it was first announced that Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper would be adapting the long-running Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, it’s become such all-consuming joke fodder that it’s hard to see past the memes.
So let’s focus on the positives first: this is, actually, a film with some craft and talent behind it; it is bold and visually striking, upgrading the beige setting of the stage show into a wild, gaudy, neon-lit approximation of London; and in a crowded ensemble, newcomer Francesca Hayward stands out as the audience surrogate, her empathy and charisma breaking through.
And… that’s about it. The writing was on the wall for Cats, and it turned out to be largely accurate. And the first hint of its almighty folly was right there in front of us: the stage show is also bad. It just is. There is nothing to it beyond the tourist-friendly spectacle and showmanship. Adapted with alarming faithfulness from the T.S. Eliot poems, there is no plot to speak of. It is essentially a cat talent show with an afterlife spaceship. They bang on about “jellicles” and dance a bit like cats. Eliot’s poems were gentle and child-friendly, but in a narrative context they make no sense. Each song merely introduces a new cat, and each cat has one personality trait: this one is magic! This one likes trains! This one’s fat!
Your brain will never comprehend it.
So, the film is too faithful to the stage show, which is too faithful to the poetry. Fine. But there are so many other things wrong with it, so many eye-meltingly bonkers moments, so many baffling creative choices that only raise questions.
Such as: why does Jason Derulo attempt a cockney accent? Why is there a troupe of dancing cockroaches? Why do the breakdancing cats — yes, there are breakdancing cats — wear trainers? Why is there a tail dance that looks unfailingly like synchronised erections? Why does a lead actor clearly sing out of tune at one point, and why was that take left in? Why does Judi Dench wear a coat that seems to be made of her own fur? Why is ‘Memory’ — a rare moment of pathos and arguably the only good song — delivered by Jennifer Hudson with a face covered, distractingly, in snot?
And most baffling of all: why do they look like that? The much-vaunted “digital fur technology” has improved since the trailer, but never climbs from the shivering depths of the uncanny valley. Neither human nor cat, they all look like laboratory mutants put through a Snapchat filter. Your brain will never comprehend it. It’s jarring from the first minute and remains jarring until the last.
So, to confirm, it’s bad. It is a bad film and cannot be recommended. And yet! There is, for the right reasons and far more for the wrong reasons, a kitsch value to it. The intended humour mostly falls flat (lame jokes like “cat got your tongue” are neither funny nor logical), but there’s something in the garish, glorious failure of it that can absolutely be enjoyed. It is unbelievable that it even exists. Like a miserable, flea-bitten old tabby who should have been put down a long time ago, it’s hard to begrudge, at least.