Earlier this year, the world stopped in its tracks when, out of nowhere, the trailer for the new Cats film debuted. The two-minute teaser left all of us with a lot of questions, namely “what is this?”, “what is going on?”, “is this for real?” and “but seriously, what is this and what is going on?”.
In particular, the sight of stars like Jennifer Hudson, Dame Judi Dench and Idris Elba in their bizarre half-human, half-cat incarnations proved to be a shock for viewers, with many pointing out the less-than-seamless visual effects on show in the clip.
Since then, the Cats trailer has been viewed more than 13 million times on YouTube, about half of which we can probably account for, because we’ve been watching it pretty much on a loop ever since it came out. As a result, we’ve been counting down the months, weeks and, eventually, minutes until we were finally able to see the film in all its glory.
We weren’t expecting a cinematic masterpiece, of course, but given the anticipation the trailer has instilled in us since July, we were at least hoping for an arresting couple of hours, maybe with a few laughs (intentional or otherwise) thrown in along the way.
Did the film itself deliver on our expectations? Well, we don’t want to show our claws, but no.
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage musical of Cats is based around the feline-centric poems of T.S. Eliot. For those unfamiliar with the *ahem* “plot”, the original play centres around a group of cats dubbed the Jellicles, who gather together one night a year to compete for a place in the “Heaviside Layer”, where they can be reborn into the life they really want. To do that, they have to perform a song about themselves for Old Deuteronomy, the wisest cat, who then makes the decision. So yes, it’s essentially The X Factor, for cats, where the prize appears to be... death.
For this reason, the stage musical has been heavily criticised over the years as being a little low on action, and while director Tom Hooper has done his best to rectify this with a few added subplots here and there, what he’s ended up with is still essentially a film that’s two hours’ worth of poorly-designed CGI cats introducing themselves to the audience through dance.
Each musical number is completely different to the one before it, and there’s an almost overwhelming amount to take in during each scene. While the intention here was no doubt to make Cats a visual feast, it ends up being something that’s a struggle to pay attention to.
Meanwhile, because the songs themselves just aren’t as memorable as those featured in other musical films of the last few years, the unthinkable has happened, and Cats has somehow ended up being rather boring as a result.
Of course, the main problem the film has is the quality of its CGI. Director Tom Hooper has spoken at length about how he used new technology to digitally render the actors’ cat personas, rather than using the (admittedly pretty ropey) costumes associated with the stage production. As seen in the trailer, this was a swing and a miss, and although the director has said that the reaction to the initial characters prompted many to be re-designed, there’s little evidence of this in the film itself.
In the middle of scenes, actors’ faces appear to change positions on their cat characters’ heads, which is a particular issue when they’re in motion. And given that Cats is a dance-led musical film, there are a lot of times when the characters are moving about. When they work, the characters’ designs are impressive, but there are simply too many flaws for it to have been worth it.
Early critics were recently shown an incomplete version of the film, and watching the finished version, it’s hard not to assume that the CGI was rushed along to meet Cats’ release date, when in reality, it could probably have done with another few months of polishing.
And unfortunately, it’s not just the character designs where the CGI falls short, but also its dance numbers.
Cats is known for its choreography, and the film version has recruited the Royal Ballet’s principal ballerina Francesca Hayward to play Victoria, in her first big-screen role. Bringing in Francesca was a smart move for a project which is renowned for its choreography, but it’s a shame that some of her more elaborate dance sequences – which would no doubt be show-stoppingly impressive if they were being done by a human in costume – appear on screen like they’re being performed by a character from The Sims.
Still, it’s not all bad news, although Cats’ strengths are few and and far between. Those hoping for endless weird, wonderful and nonsensical moments based on that infamous trailer can look forward to Rebel Wilson unzipping her coat to reveal… another coat, Dame Judi Dench kicking her leg in the air in celebration and even an unexpected musical number performed by Ray Winstone, which goes exactly as you’d think.
There are even a few bits worth celebrating – namely a strong performance of Memory, Cats’ stand-out tune, from Jennifer Hudson, who never fails to deliver, no matter what she’s up against. For musical theatre fans, the film is probably worth going to see just for her alone.
Sir Ian McKellen is also strong as Gus the theatre cat (although we could probably have done without the sight of him licking milk out of a dish), while Taylor Swift shows off a new side to herself as a performer with one of the film’s signature musical numbers, Macavity.
Still, this isn’t not enough to save Cats.
Aside from a few shining moments, and even a couple of occasions where we genuinely couldn’t believe what were seeing on screen, there just isn’t enough for us to be able to recommend Cats to anyone who isn’t already a devotee of either the original musical or one of the film’s A-list cast members.
Disappointingly, Cats is a mess at best and a chore at its worst. Still, at least we’ll always have that ridiculous trailer to entertain us.
Cats hits UK cinemas on Friday 20 December.