Cats

Rating:

KITTY LITTER

Main Cast: Francesca Hayward, Robbie Fairchild

Director: Tom Hooper

I regret to inform you, dear readers, that all further performances of my new holiday musical spectacular, Snakes on a Plane, have been indefinitely postponed. I had such hope for the project and when the curtain went up at the Pantages last week for a crowd of glittering first nighters, I could smell a huge hit in the air as every number was greeted with wave after wave of glorious applause – our first act country Christmas hoe down with the ground crew making a jug band out of some suitcases, an old fuel line, and directional safety cones, was particularly well received. I finished my big power ballad at the half hour mark, a tender song of emotional fidelity between a lady FBI agent and her mother, when disaster struck. Unbeknownst to my production company, our stage crew had been infiltrated by several members of PETER (People for the Ethical Treatment of Estimable Reptiles). Apparently, reports of our little theatrical had been circulating on the dark web and certain radical actors decided that our dancing boa constrictors were an intolerable affront to snake kind.

woman holding snake
Some of the audience members were quite taken with my co-stars.

As I was finishing my big number, these heinous hooligans opened all of the cages in which our reptile friends were awaiting their big entrance and my herpetological costars were soon slithering through the ventilation system from the backstage area into the front of house. I was well into my next dramatic scene when I noticed a kerfuffle in the fourth row. I assumed the ushers were dealing with some patron illicitly filming my brilliant performance on their camera phone and kept on when all of a sudden, a whole knot of people rose to their feet and began screaming at once. That’s when I noticed that the woman on the aisle had one of the pythons, I think it was Tricki-woo, wrapped around her Birkin bag and they were engaged in quite the tug of war. Soon pandemonium was breaking out all over the theater, stage management had to bring the curtain down rather quickly and soon the fire department, the bomb squad, a hazmat team, and animal control were converging on the Pantages as the audience was stampeding for the exits. Fortunately, my gal Friday, Leah, who was sitting in my reserved box house left, had the presence of mind to race backstage, gather me up and remove me from the scene of the mayhem before I could be injured, or any terribly embarrassing questions could be asked. As I beat a retreat for the emergency exit, I caught a glimpse of Margo Channing, in costume as my mother, racing through the front aisle with her Christmas tree flocking gun yelling ‘There’s mother flocking snakes in the mother flocking house’ and spraying as she went. I think most of the artificial snow ended up coating the orchestra pit much to the consternation of the musicians.

Cats is an adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage hit which opened originally in 1981 and ran for decades, both in the West End of London and on Broadway. It was based on a collection of children’s poems by T.S. Eliot, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. It was essentially plotless, a triumph of theatrical style over substance. Critics of the time were divided but the public lapped it up based on its brilliant staging by Trevor Nunn, choreography by Gillian Lynne, stunning junkyard set by John Napier, and a hit song Memory, covered by every chanteuse in the English-speaking world over the next few years. I saw the original production, enjoyed it, but never felt like it was something worth seeing again. When a filmed version of the stage show was released in the late 90s, it showed up all of the flaws in the material and how much the piece is a creature of the stage and requires a huge suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience and direct connection between spectator and performer covered in yak hair in order to succeed. It’s just not easily adaptable to the highly literal real world of film. It might succeed as pure animation (and Spielberg was working on an animated version some years ago that never happened) but the artificial blend of human performer and CGI fur that the filmmakers have dreamed up for this version is disorienting, sort of like seeing a theatrical on the island of Dr. Moreau.

Leah and I decided that lying low for a while was a good idea so we decided not to return directly to Casa Maine, but rather to nip in to the closest Cineplex where we could while away a few hours with a film and some popcorn and steady our nerves. The next showing of Tom Hooper’s new film adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Cats was just about to begin so we took our seats and settled in to munch contentedly while the theater played a seemingly endless round of commercials for products I don’t want to buy and trailers for upcoming movies I don’t want to see. I must admit that I came to the theater to escape a disaster involving large quantities of animals assaulting the audience. I hadn’t expected the feature to replicate that experience quite so much.

Much has been written about Cats. Critic after critic has decided to pile on with vituperative snark about what an awful film it is and how wrong headed all the choices are. I have chosen not to go that route. It’s not bad exactly. What it is, is the first line of Tango Maureen from Rent (you can google it if you don’t know it). I haven’t seen so consistently bizarre a major studio release in I don’t know how many years. The big studios like to play it safe. There’s nothing safe in this film at all. And the consistency of tone, design and filmmaking behind it show that it’s all quite deliberate so someone, somewhere lit the green light.

The film, in order to lead the audience into the world and to give them a protagonist with whom they can identify, creates a new cat, Victoria (ballerina Francesca Hayward in her debut) who is abandoned in an alley somewhere off Piccadilly Circus in an amazing set that creates a mid-20th century human free London that never was. As Victoria meets the other cat denizens of the world, so we too get to know them and it soon becomes clear that this is a special night, the night that the jellicle cats (a T.S. Eliotism that is never explained) gather for a ball and to choose one of their number to be reborn into a new life. We meet these cats one by one as they each do a specialty number (which I think is supposed to be their speech supporting their candidacy for rebirth – but this isn’t entirely clear either), and the jellicle leader Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) gets to choose who will ascend. Meanwhile, the evil cat Macavity (Idris Elba) is trying to rig the contest by kidnapping the other contenders so he will win by default. These slender threads of plot do give the proceedings a bit more coherence than the stage script. The score is pretty much as it was written for the stage. The operetta spoof Growltigers Last Stand is gone but the rest is pretty much there and in the same arrangement as the original creators intended. There is one new song, Beautiful Ghosts, for Victoria, which flows out of the first appearance of Memory. It’s neither Beautiful nor Ghostly but then it was written by Lloyd Webber and Taylor Swift (who also makes an appearance as Bombalurina – the cat who sings about Macavity and who appears to be the only cat with mammaries).

The cats are relatively well cast – Robbie Fairchild, the ballet and Broadway dancer – does a lot of the heavy vocal and dance as Munkustrap, a cat with no story of his own, but a sort of Greek chorus function. He and Ms. Hayward are fabulous when they dance together (choreography by Andy Blankenbuhler) but, unfortunately, director Hooper keeps his camera cutting rather than just letting it rest and letting us wonder at the artistry of two well trained human bodies in motion. Much of the cutting is way too frenetic which adds to the surreal feel of the film. As the contestants, we get Rebel Wilson as Jennyanydots, a large cat with an appetite for cockroaches, James Corden as Bustopher Jones, another large and gluttonous cat, Sir Ian McKellen as Gus, the theater cat, Jason Derulo as Rum Tum Tugger, the Elvis wannabe, and Jennifer Hudson as the tragic Grizabella. She does her best with Memory, which should be the emotional and musical highlight, but it doesn’t really suit her voice type, and someone decided the best way for her to show her pain visually was to have snot running from her nose down through her fur. I spent the whole number wishing I could hand her a Kleenex.

So, while the ingredients are there for a potentially interesting film, the souffle falls in the oven. Some of it is the decision to create odd CGI hybrids rather than pure animation or humans in costume. I think we’ll all agree that it’s an interesting idea but just doesn’t work. Some of it is the material viewed through the distancing lens of the camera. Nothing has been done to really draw an audience into an alternate world. Tom Hooper could take a few lessons from James Cameron on that. Some of it is the material itself. The poems are very British, and I doubt an American suburban audience is even going to understand a quarter of the references in them. (And as for James Corden’s recitation of gentlemen’s clubs, they’ll have absolutely no clue what that is about). Then there’s some weird design choices. There’s no consistency of scale regarding the cats versus the human world in which they find themselves. Sometimes they seem to be about three feet high, sometimes three inches. Some of them have only fur. Some of them have clothes that seem awfully human (I’m talking to you Skimbleshanks). When a cat takes off its fur coat and still has fur, what does that mean? There’s a Busby Berkeley routine of tap dancing cockroaches at one point (I can now reveal that I am the model for these characters – they’ve done some clever special effects work with my famous tap routine from my musical version of Titus Andronicus, The King and Eye for an Eye – the NDA no longer applies as the film is open) but all we can concentrate on is their wacky human faces.

One critic of my acquaintance has likened Cats to an acid trip and suggested that it has a promising future as a midnight movie a la The Rocky Horror Picture Show which initially bombed when shown to serious audiences. Maybe a new generation of teenagers will take to hurling catnip and kitty litter at the screen in the wee hours while singing along to The Naming of Cats and a new pop culture tradition will be born. I’m not going to either recommend or not recommend this one. Make up your own mind.

Gratuitous head butting. Gratuitous cockroach eating. Gratuitous broken vase. Gratuitous milk bar. Gratuitous hot air balloon. Gratuitous Lord Nelson column. Gratuitous crescent moon riding. Gratuitous rail dancing. Gratuitous magic tricks.

To learn more about Mrs. Norman Maine, see our Movie Rewind introduction, visit her entire back catalog and follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/missvickilester

Image by Dean Moriarty from Pixabay

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