REVIEW: “CATS” (2019)

cats-2-1200-1900-5dd449115b84b-1All of us saw the trailer for this movie, and I’m pretty sure all of us felt the same wave of confusion and borderline-revulsion. Even if you were familiar with the hit Broadway musical that inspired this film, there was something about how uncanny the CGI looked that bordered on the horrifying instead of the cute. Not exactly the best start, yeah? Going into CATS, most of the audience probably expected a train wreck. I certainly did. That being said, whoever cut together the trailers for the film should not edit trailers for a living as the trailers were an awful representation of the movie. At the end of the day, CATS is neither as consistently weird throughout as you want it to be, nor is it as good as the film seems to think it is. There are plenty of weird moments, too, but once you get used to the CGI, it’s basically exactly the stage musical as you remember it. Is it fun? Yeah, most of the time. Is it worth seeing? Sure, at least once. But your overall enjoyment will depend almost entirely on how much you like the musical. I liked the movie a bit more than I liked the musical (for reasons that will become apparent) – but I also really don’t like the musical. (Very mild spoilers ahead.)

CATS (written by Lee Hall & Tom Hooper, directed by Tom Hooper)
Featuring Andrew Lloyd Webber’s iconic music and a world-class cast of dancers under the guidance of Tony-winning choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler (Hamilton, In the Heights), the film reimagines the musical for a new generation with spectacular production design, state-of-the-art technology, and dance styles ranging from classical ballet to contemporary, hip-hop to jazz, street dance to tap.

A tribe of cats called the Jellicles must decide yearly which one will ascend to the Heaviside Layer and come back to a new Jellicle life.

cats1I don’t like the CATS musical. It’s essentially plotless (its plot being a very loose thing where a bunch of cats gather together to decide who’s going to ascend to Cat Heaven, but mostly being an excuse for different cats to sing a solo before one cat is ultimately chosen as the Jellicle choice), and that lack of narrative thrust really drags the story down; half of the music is completely forgettable and the other half ranges in quality, making for an extremely uneven score that has a lot of less impressive songs stacked one after another; and the whole thing is a bizarre experience that never manages to be weird enough to overcome the problems with the show’s writing. Unfortunately, all of this is true for this film adaptation, as well. It’s often very enjoyable and fun in parts, most notably some of the stranger musical numbers (that I’ll touch on a little later), but, like the musical, there are large parts where there’s not a lot happening and everything slows down to a bit of a crawl.

cats2I’ll give the film’s screenplay (by Lee Hall and Tom Hooper) some credit: they sure try to craft some kind of coherent narrative out of the musical’s complete ambivalence to narrative thrust. It’s certainly not a perfect screenplay – what little dialogue is added ranges from extremely expository to really bad attempts at comedy (possibly ad-libbed by James Corden and Rebel Wilson) – but it was a lot better than I expected it to be. The film does end up being a bit more coherent than the stage show and, thus, a bit more enjoyable in my eyes. The film follows Victoria (Francesca Hayward), a cat who barely registers as a character in the stage version, as she joins the Jellicles and experiences her first Jellicle Ball. By grounding the story around Victoria’s experience in this new world, Hall and Hooper invite the audience to experience what she is going through and it makes it a little easier for the film to float from cat-to-cat as they make their case for why they should be the one to go to the Heaviside Layer. Add to that, an expanded role for Macavity (Idris Elba), the Criminal Cat, (including some explanation for why he does some of what he does throughout the story) and you’ve got something that comes much closer to the traditional structure of a film than the structure of the musical would. It’s not the most interesting of plotlines, but it does act as a way of tying all of these vignettes with these different characters together into a storyline that an audience might actually care about. It’s very similar to the stage version, but with enough small changes that tweak it into something that almost works as a film. It’s not perfect, but it’s probably good enough. It still suffers from most of the problems the stage version has, though – namely the sluggish pace of the middle of the piece. Some of that’s because all of the boring songs happen in the middle of the musical, but some of it’s also because that’s when you really realize that all the story is going to be is a bunch of cats singing about why they’re awesome and why they should be the ones who go to the Heaviside Layer. The film tries to fix that with the added Victoria and Macavity plotline, and it mostly succeeds, but there’s still a segment in the middle that drags on a bit.

cats21While the plot itself isn’t the most interesting, various vignettes are suitably weird and interesting and they keep your attention while the story drifts off into whatever direction it’s heading next. Some of the strangest and most entertaining ones include “Macavity” (a particularly fun bit of strangeness that I can’t even begin to describe here), “Mr. Mistoffelees” (a reworking of the song that really allows Mistoffelees a moment to shine), “Jellicle Ball” (a 5+ minute dance sequence that is every bit as strange as you hope), “The Rum Tum Tugger” (basically four minutes of the Jason Derulo cat being as horny as possible), “The Old Gumbie Cat” (Rebel Wilson and some unexpected singing animals), and “The Addressing of Cats” (the strangest of them all, for reasons those who have seen the show will immediately understand as the film does this number very accurately to its typical staging). These vignettes are when the film gets truly weird and that weirdness ends up being the most enjoyable part. Unfortunately, those weird moments come few and far between and are surrounded by less weirdness and, subsequently, less interesting stuff. The film is very similar to the stage version in this regard, actually. The stage version is boring for large chunks but gets exciting again during most of the same moments the movie goes from mediocre to weird-enough-that-it-s-fun. So, when I say the film isn’t as consistently weird as you’d hope, this is what I mean. There are plenty of super strange moments, but they’re surrounded by less surreal moments where everything seems normal and numbs you to the whole experience. Without the constant weirdness, there’s little interesting about the film for decent chunks. But this has always been the case with CATS. You go for the few weird moments and suffer through the rest of the piece. But, man, those weird moments sure are memorable here. You’ll be thinking about those moments long after you leave the theater. At the end of the day, if you like the stage version, you’ll like this script, but if you don’t like CATS the musical, the film’s script won’t change your mind.

cats20Neither will the film’s score. Comprised of most of the music from the stage version (only one song was definitely cut in its entirety, but a variety of others were likely trimmed in order to get the normally 2+ hour show to fit a runtime of 110 minutes – with 5+ minutes of credits), the music has all the same problems as the stage show’s score. It’s just simply not one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s best. There are some highlights – namely “Macavity” (sung by Taylor Swift and Idris Elba), “Mr. Mistoffelees” (sung by Laurie Davidson, Robbie Fairchild, Francesca Hayward, and Judi Dench), “The Rum Tum Tugger” (sung by Jason Derulo), and “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats” (sung by the whole cast) – but most of the score is largely forgettable. Of course, there’s the iconic “Memory” (sung in the film by Jennifer Hudson), but I’ve never liked that song very much. Jennifer Hudson does a very good job with the song, but even she can’t save a song that’s not as good as it thinks it is. There’s also the new song, “Beautiful Ghosts” (sung by Francesca Hayward during the film and Taylor Swift in the credits), written by Swift and Andrew Lloyd Webber, and it’s fine. It doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb, or anything, but nothing about it feels particularly inspired. It’s just another in a line of not-as-great songs that hamper the pacing of the middle of the film. Ultimately, though, the cast all do a good job with their vocals and the arrangements are very well done, staying true to the original score in some ways while updating and expanding it in others. But, it’s still ultimately the CATS score, and either you like the score or you don’t and the movie’s not gonna change your opinion either way.

cats6As I mentioned above, the entire cast does a good job. There’s not a weak link in the cast and all of them are fully committed to this project. Perhaps they thought it was going to turn out differently than it did, or perhaps they really did relish at the chance to do something like this. Either way, it’s the performances from the cast that largely keep this film afloat. Francesca Hayward makes a good first impression in the film, though she’s never able to fully overcome the blandness her character is given by the script; to be fair, I’m not sure even the most seasoned actor could overcome such intentional blandness. But Hayward is very good, with a lovely voice and some pretty impressive dancing. The biggest highlights of the cast are Taylor Swift (as Bombalurina, in the movie for about five minutes), Idris Elba (as Macavity), Jason Derulo (as the Rum Tum Tugger), and Laurie Davidson (as Mr. Mistoffelees), all of whom relish their sometimes-limited screentime and bring some truly chaotic fun to the mix. I dare you to not be enthralled by whatever it is Elba and Swift are doing in this movie. Jennifer Hudson is very good, but Grizabella has so little to do in the overall story that it’s hard for Hudson to make much of an impression outside of the “Memory” sequence. The rest of the cast do a solid job, though some of them suffer from some questionable material – like the previously mentioned awful attempts at comedy provided to Corden and Rebel Wilson (though it’s hard to say if that was scripted or ad-libbed) – but even those who have some crummy dialogue still largely pull off their songs. Overall, it was a very strong cast and their performances breathed some life into the proceedings.

cats5Now for the moment that everyone’s been waiting to talk about: the VFX (and other directing choices). Quite a lot has been said about the humanoid cat CGI and, I have to say, they largely improved on it from its first appearance in that trailer over the summer. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s good, but it’s nowhere near as terrifying as it once was and, like the equally odd costumes in the stage version, you grow used to the CGI after the first five minutes or so. That being said, the CGI works better on some cats than others; the key to successful implementation seems to align with how much fur a specific cat has on their face. Victoria, for example, always looks a bit uncanny because her face is nearly fur-free, so the face never looks like it fits in with the rest of the body. But cats like Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) and Grizabella look totally believable as their faces are covered with fur. It’s little things like that which help sell the illusion. Once you get used to the CGI, it stops being as weird as it once was. That’s not to say there’s not a whole bunch of weirdness in the film, but it’s fairly sporadic and rarely related to the VFX work itself – though it never stops being extremely strange when you see a very-human hand or foot in one of the shots, and those happen so infrequently that when they do, you’re immediately reminded that “oh, yeah, this is some weird CGI”. But that only happens a couple of times; largely, you just forget about the CGI. Ultimately, the VFX is nowhere near the nightmare fuel or film-killing distraction that we all thought it would be.

cats8As for the rest of the visuals and directing, it’s a fairly typical Tom Hooper musical adaptation. Nearly all of the tricks he employed in his adaptation of Les Misérables get reused in this film – most notably his habit of long shots and lingering close-ups; but in some ways, those directorial quirks of his actually work much better in CATS than they did in Les Misérables. The never-ending closeups feel just as awkward here as they did in Les Misérables, if not more so given the whole the-faces-don’t-always-fit-the-bodies issue, but they do sort of add to the uneasy feeling you get throughout the film, so they kind of end up working? However, the long-lasting wide shots definitely work a lot better in CATS. They prove particularly beneficial during the dance numbers as they allow Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography the opportunity to really shine without getting cut to shreds by switching to different camera angles. For example, the camera holds on Francesca Hayward as she does a ballet move, and it never cuts away from her until the move is finished, allowing the audience ample time to appreciate her technique. The same is largely true for all of the dancing in the film, and it’s very nice to have the opportunity to actually appreciate Blankenbuehler’s work here. On a less technical level, Hooper is able to obtain some solid performances from his actors (as mentioned above), and the editing of the movie is fairly tight – about as tight as it could be given the script’s adherence to the source material. It’s not one of Hooper’s best-directed films, but his direction is not bad. It’s just such a complex movie that it’s hard for any director to fully maintain control over the moving parts – and it probably shows a bit.

cats3

All in all, it’s hard to really judge CATS. Nobody’s going to believe me if I say it’s not a train wreck, but it really wasn’t one. I’m not saying it’s a great movie or anything, but it’s totally fine. Mostly enjoyable. Very harmless. Ultimately probably forgettable. The CGI mostly worked itself out, in the end, which robbed the film of a lot of its intriguing weirdness. While there are still plenty of weird scenes scattered throughout the film, they’re so infrequent that they can’t really buoy an otherwise mediocre story. The not-so-great story isn’t really the film’s fault, so it feels inauthentic to critique the film for having many of the same problems the musical has as the film would’ve gotten crucified were it to have made too many changes. As it is, they did what they could to give it some kind of structure and I think this does ultimately improve the flow of the story somewhat. but, at the end of the day, none of this saves CATS from descending into the ranks of films that were just fine. It’s never as consistently weird as you want it to be, nor is it ever as good as the film thinks it is. It’s just fine. If you enjoy the musical, you’ll enjoy this film. If you don’t, this film isn’t gonna convert you into a believer. I will say that I probably liked the movie better than I liked the musical, but I really don’t like the musical. You pretty much already know if you’re gonna see this movie, so for those of you who like CATS, I highly recommend seeing this in theaters. For everyone else, you can probably wait until it hits DVD/Blu-Ray/Streaming.

3 out of 5 wands.

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