The Must-See Musical Event
In early 20th century London, a young cat named Victoria [Hayward] is abandoned in an alleyway. There she meets a group who call themselves Jellicle Cats and learns about the selection process called the Jellicle Ball, wherein an elderly cat named Old Deuteronomy [Dench] selects a cat who will go on to the Heaviside Layer and be granted a new life; essentially it’s a talent contest and the winner gets reincarnated. And that is the best I can do to squeeze out some sort of synopsis from this bizarre tale.
Before we get in line with every film critic under the sun and rightly shred this feature to ribbons, let’s take a moment to appreciate the handful of things the film succeeds at. First of all, there is a tremendous energy and earnestness to each and every performance and you would be hard-pressed to claim that any of the cast were simply phoning it in. There are also plenty of interesting visuals, from the high quality set design, significantly helping to ground everything, to the CGI fur which is extremely impressive and accomplished.. providing the subjects are filmed up close and stay static. Regrettably, all of this quickly disappears once both the camera and the actor start moving and by the time the human-face-on-animal-body mice and cockroaches appear, it becomes almost impossible to defend. Especially when there’s nothing on-screen that desperately needed to be CGI when practical make-up and costume work would have worked perfectly well.
Like a despotic emperor at the height of their power, making absurd demands of their subjects, Cats is a prime example of what happens when a bad idea is given full reign to experiment. To elaborate, I’m not saying cinema shouldn’t have any freedom to create unique oddities but Cats is not the same thing as subversive independent cinema, it’s lunacy brought to life and told with complete sincerity. But it’s not just that the concept is farcical – after all something like Star Wars requires suspension of disbelief – it’s more that Cats is so ill-conceived that I don’t know what is required to enjoy it. From the very first scene the entire production is immediately jarring, confirming suspicions that this was never going to be a good idea and seeing the physical representation of cat/human hybrids is as odd a visual as the pilot episode of Thundercats wherein they’re all naked. But in my opinion, this film was doomed to fail because it tried to take something off the stage and put it on screen (not so much a negative in and of itself) using technology to enhance the photorealism of the core concept.
I have no problem with musicals, I think they are as unique and worthy as any other cinematic genre but Cats is shit. I appreciate it has won countless awards, performed on sold-out stages around the world and is loved by a great many but it’s still shit. Structurally, thematically and musically, it’s a state. Subsequently, if you weren’t already aware that this movie was a direct adaptation of a multi- billion dollar making stage success, it would be a hard sell. What surprised me the most (at least at first) was Hooper’s decision to, in no obvious way, update the music, meaning what we have is a repetitive synth nightmare, plagued by nauseating leitmotifs and “clever, poignant” lyrics such as “a cat is not a dog.” And while Memories is still a genuinely decent song, everything else is forgettable and nonsensical.
Then we have what could generously be described as the story. Despite trying to force some sort of cohesive narrative, the film can’t escape its source material being little more than a list of cats introducing themselves and on-screen it is remarkably boring. But to remain somehow faithful to the musical, none of the mythology is explained and the sheer lack of world building is flabbergasting. Certain cats wear clothes while others don’t and Jennyanydots [Rebel Wilson] can take her skin off? Some cats are magical, others are not. Old Deuteronomy selects a cat to be given a new life but little detail is given as to how or why. Macavity [Elba] is a feared and mischievous cat but we are never given a reason to hate or fear him other than being told to. And then there’s Jennifer Hudson as Griselda who is a sorrowful outcast but it is never clarified why she is such a pariah. More than that, the word jellicle is a nonsense phrase that means everything and nothing but the movie never attempts to really explain what jellicle is. Arguably this shouldn’t leave a stale taste but with so much heavy emphasis on the word jellicle repeated over-and-over without offering any expository description of what it is, it’s hard not to assume a climactic reveal was coming.
In fairness, I will commend Cats for committing wholeheartedly to its creepy vision but it is such an uncomfortable anomaly that it is so very hard to lose yourself in the experience. It doesn’t help that for every competent aspect, you cannot shake the unavoidable fact that the lack of structured story means the entire ordeal is awkward and dissatisfying; a prime example of an artist’s reach exceeding his grasp and likely a cautionary tale for studios for decades to come.
20 December 2019
The Scene To Look Out For:
The Jellicle Ball is such a strange concept; the idea that an elder selects a worthy individual to ascend into the sun to be destroyed and reincarnated. It has so much in the way of cultish overtones that simply do not fit the whimsical setting and vocalised passion of the central characters. And when the moment comes and the dawn arrives, the remaining cats sing their final ballad to the sun and all I could see was the horrified expressions on the Trafalgar Square lions and the realisation that the coveted prize is the sweet release of death. And by the film’s denouement, one sympathises.
There are two ends of the spectrum for this film. On one hand you have Jennifer Hudson belting out a heartfelt tragic tale (providing you don’t actually listen to the lyrics) worthy of a standing ovation for the energy, skill and emotion on display and on the other you have Ray Winstone gruffly singing about being a cat on a barge in the Thames. The two are so disparate in tone and ability yet both exist side-by-side in this ridiculous endeavour.
“You should need no interpreter”
In A Few Words:
“A thoroughly poorly conceived baffling nonsense fever dream of a film”