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Back in the summer of 2015, the co-directors of Disney’s “Zootopia” went rogue, disregarding the advice of their corporate colleagues and appearing onstage at the Annecy animation festival disguised as the talking-animal cartoon’s fur-covered lead characters, an anthropomorphic rabbit and her foxy best friend. The audience ate it up, but behind the scenes, the Disney suits were sweating. For decades, the family entertainment company had been dealing with a very specific group of enthusiasts, identified as “furries,” who get off on dressing up in full-body animal costumes, drawing inspiration wherever they can find it. By now, Disney lawyers know how to deal with that crowd, but other studios have to learn the hard way.
I mention this because it’s just one of dozens of things the folks at Universal seem not to have taken into consideration before making a movie version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s long-running musical “Cats” — another being the need to define, for generations uninitiated, the meaning of “Jellicle,” a nonsense word repeated nearly six dozen times in the opening number alone. Fans of the original show may embrace it; so too will furries, I’d wager. But it’s not enough to take a blockbuster Broadway phenomenon with one iconic earworm — Lloyd Webber’s unforgettable “Memory” — and a loose plot about a community of street cats competing for a chance to be reborn, and trust it to work on the big screen.
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“The King’s Speech” director Tom Hooper’s outlandishly tacky interpretation seems destined to become one of those once-in-a-blue-moon embarrassments that mars the résumés of great actors (poor Idris Elba, already scarred enough as the villainous Macavity) and trips up the careers of promising newcomers (like ballerina Francesca Hayward, whose wide-eyed, mouth-agape Victoria displays one expression for the entire movie). From the first shot — of just such a blue moon, distressingly fake, flanked by poufy cat-shaped clouds — to the last, “Cats” hurts the eyes and, yes, the ears, as nearly all the musical numbers, including “Memory,” have been twisted into campy, awards-grubbing cameos for big-name stars in bad-CG cat drag.
From the moment a teaser trailer hit the web last summer, the studio has been reeling from the ridicule, seemingly blindsided by harsh attacks on the character designs, the visual effects and the very notion of adapting the hit show. Truth be told, it should have anticipated the backlash. None of it would have mattered if the movie were halfway decent. Sadly, this uneven eyesore turns out to be every bit the Jellicle catastrophe the haters anticipated, about the musical in the first place.
Simply put, face paint and Lycra have done the trick for decades. Skeptical cats and dyspeptical cats don’t need Jellicle cats to be photorealistical cats, for if they were, it would open up a whole new realm of headaches to pedantical cats and critical cats — questions no one wants to consider about why they walk upright and talk in rhyme, and how to explain away their bosoms and bulges. The answer to the former gets to a fundamental philosophical difference between the stage and screen treatments of the material: “Cats” the musical was adapted from a volume of T.S. Eliot’s poetry titled “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” which coined the term “Jellicle” and contributed much of the verse that served as lyrics. While Lloyd Webber supplied the music, Gillian Lynne’s choreography was every bit as important to the show’s success.
“Nipples to the sky!” went one of Lynne’s signature directives — the title of an upcoming documentary about the creative collaborator, whose sexually charged approach seems largely ignored in this clumsy new version of “Cats.” Whereas the musical celebrated dancing bodies, the movie emphasizes singing faces. Expanding his role from the recent revival, “Hamilton” choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler’s updated (some might say “neutered”) maneuvers suffer from graceless editing and a split-second lag in the performance-capture process — plus frightening angles whenever the alarming creatures leap across screen. Emotion takes precedence over motion, which doesn’t seem like such a bad thing, except now, the numbers have been stripped of their sing-along potential, presented not as whimsical ditties but as altogether-too-earnest renditions.
The company was never meant to be read literally as cats: It’s made up of lithe and flexible acrobats who’ve adapted their cat-like gestures to suggest feline behavior, even going so far as to stalk the aisles and interact with audience members. For the movie, they’ve been cast with pop stars and Oscar laureates — from Taylor Swift (Satine-like Bombalurina) and Jason Derulo (glam-rock tomcat Rum Tum Tugger) to Jennifer Hudson (ostracized outsider Grizabella) and Judi Dench (respected Old Deuteronomy, a role presented here as female for the first time).
The instant a filmmaker comes along, blocking and framing all that dancing into medium and tight shots, the effect is lost. We find it impossible to fully appreciate the choreography, while our brains instinctively switch over to nitpicking mode: What’s with the ears, amputated on the sides, cute but not convincingly cat-like on top? Should the whiskers really originate directly under the singers’ noses? Why do the characters’ heads seem to change shape entirely every time the actors shift position? And under such conditions, just how much of the human form are we comfortable recognizing under all that virtual fur?
Since its London debut in 1981, “Cats” has always been a divisive production. It was an easy punchline for haters while delighting the hoi polloi by the herd. If you sense condescension in this review, it’s not intentional: “Cats” was the first major musical I ever saw, and I wore the T-shirt proudly, with its signature cat eyes — a logo that subliminally emphasized the show’s priorities via the silhouetted dancers half-disguised in the feline pupils. To a kid raised in Texas, having experienced “Cats” at the theatah passed for sophistication. To more cultured New Yorkers, it was beneath contempt.
When the show opened on Broadway, David Letterman picked on it constantly. A few years later, playwright John Guare used it as a running joke in “Six Degrees of Separation,” wherein a family of upper-crust Gothamites are taken in by a charming young con man who claims to be the son of Sidney Poitier, seducing them all with the promise of roles in the movie version of “Cats.” “Don’t be snooty,” chides the husband, while his wife wonders, “Is it right to make a movie of ‘Cats’?”
Steven Spielberg tried, but couldn’t crack it (he still takes his credit as an executive producer), and the task fell to Hooper, who’d reimagined another of stage director Trevor Nunn’s mega-shows, “Les Misérables,” for the screen. Just as that adaptation went its own way, bringing a sense of grit and grime (and shaky, documentary-style camerawork) to Victor Hugo’s ragged portrait of France’s dispossessed, this one also breaks from what had been done onstage. Hooper broadens beyond the back-alley setting to reveal a stylized version of London’s Trafalgar Square, all but devoid of homo sapiens yet newly festooned with cat-related details (extending far beyond its familiar bronze lions).
This allows him to visit cats in different habitats, from the vermin-infested kitchen where Old Gumbie Cat (Rebel Wilson) surveys mice and cockroaches dancing in Busby Berkeley-style formation (the pests appear far too tiny relative to the cats’ scale, not that there’s any consistency on that front) to the stage where Gus the Theatre Cat (Ian McKellen) sings of his exploits, and from which Old Deuteronomy will select a cat for reincarnation at the annual Jellicle ball. Hooper frames things through Victoria’s slow-blinking gaze, as the new arrival — tossed out in a pillow case by the film’s lone human character — adjusts to her new feline family. It is Victoria who sings the movie’s new song, the “Memory”-complementing “Beautiful Ghosts,” although its addition diminishes — as opposed to emphasizing — Grizabella’s neglected status, sounding better in Swift’s rendition over the end credits.
In a weak attempt to create more of a story (it’s a misconception that “Cats” has none, when in fact it does, just not a particularly compelling one), Hooper and co-writer Lee Hall have made Macavity a more nefarious character, lurking on the sidelines of each of the previous cats’ songs. When they’re finished, he works some kind of magic — enticing the ever-hungry Bustopher Jones (James Corden) with a pile of mouthwatering trash — that causes them to vanish in a puff of dander. They reappear across town, held captive on a barge in the River Thames by battered old Growltiger (Ray Winstone), who serves as Macavity’s surly accomplice.
This device gives new purpose to the musical’s second-best song, the spectacular “Mr. Mistoffelees,” sung not by the magically inclined tuxedo cat (Laurie Davidson, the rare cast member likely to benefit from his involvement in “Cats”) but by all those who believe in his ability to make Old Deuteronomy reappear. Narratively, it’s a nice touch, but again — as when Hudson delivers her overly emotive rendition of “Memory” — the song suffers from being treated far too literally in this context. There will be plenty, I’m sure, who take no issue with Hooper’s garish aesthetics, although it’s hard to defend the big-screen musical’s treatment of Lloyd Webber’s music, or the sloppy substitute for Lynne’s choreography. At the end of the day, one wonders whether Hooper has even spent much time around cats.