Cats only inspires one question: Why?
Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical Cats played on London's West End for 21 years, and played on New York's Broadway for 18; it's one of the longest-running shows in history. But younger viewers could be excused for gazing upon the new film version of Cats and politely asking just what the holy hell is going on. As popular as it was, the original engagements of Cats have been closed for nearly 20 years, and though there have been some revivals since (not to mention its enduring audition staple "Memory"), it's not really a part of the musical-theater conversation anymore.
It's odd that so many blockbuster musicals of the '80s and the '90s (which the success of Cats helped usher to the stage) are just now getting the movie treatment, but filming them does make sense. While plenty of theatrical productions are best experienced exactly that way, there's value in creating a record of these shows, however imperfect. Tom Hooper, director of the similarly latecoming Les Miserables adaptation in 2012, has taken up the task of making the Cats of record, the version that will be most accessible to future audiences, preserving the essence of this worldwide phenomenon. Unfortunately, the question he accidentally poses is: Should any of this nonsense be preserved at all? Or should it possibly be doused with gasoline and set aflame in an alley?
Derived from a book of T.S. Eliot poems and largely plotless, the film follows a group of "jellicle" alley cats as they compete to be selected for a kind of ascension ceremony — to die, essentially, and be reborn into a better life. The selector is Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench); the contestants include cats played by Rebel Wilson, James Corden, and Idris Elba, though the point-of-view cat is Victoria (newcomer Francesa Hayward), who watches the others with interest but doesn't share in their zeal for the sweet release of death. To the uninitiated, Cats may resemble an acting-class exercise that stubbornly refuses to end, locking performers into a battle of wills over who can stave off self-consciousness the longest before slinking away in embarrassment. At times, the movie appears to court these comparisons, subtextually evoking a troupe of actors or dancers with its feline characters who are competitive, athletic, and won't stop talking about themselves.
For each of his projects, Hooper tends to lock into a handful of related visual gimmicks and repeat them ad nauseam. Here, he uses low angles and handheld cameras to put the audience alongside the animals — over and over, with rapidly diminishing utility. These rudimentary tricks are dwarfed by the grotesque spectacle of the movie's visual effects, which use a kind of digital costuming to cloak real actors and dancers in textured cat fur, and affix them with mobile tails and ears. For all of the effort and money poured into making fake cats with expressive human faces (and disturbingly shapely bodies), the performances themselves are mostly just digitally assisted mugging. Hayward beams beatifically, and endlessly. Corden makes cutesy asides. Wilson flails around with some physical comedy, but Hooper has no eye for slapstick, softening and flubbing actions as simple as a pratfall.
The movie is encapsulated by the performance of Jennifer Hudson as Grizabella, an outcast cat who mopes around the margins of the story, longing for acceptance until she sings (with Victoria's encouragement) the showstopper "Memory." Former American Idol contestant Hudson is a powerhouse singer, but that's it; here, even more so than in Dreamgirls, she's yell-singing into a void. She never connects with any other characters on screen, instead looking around mournfully and balefully, isolated whether she's alone in the frame or not, getting worked up over nothing in particular. Hooper keeps the camera on her for long stretches of "Memory," turning the whole sorry number into a grim parody of Anne Hathaway's similar moment in Les Miserables. That may have been showy, but it was infused with real emotion. Hudson's big number is bombastic technique slathered over an empty shell.
That emptiness isn't Hudson's fault, or even Hooper's (though he might have done something beyond lolling around in the material's tedium). Maybe Cats just works better on the stage, with more dancing, tactile costumes, and its revue-like story, even if the sing-songy gibberish of the songs remains similar in any medium. But with the fullness of time passed since the stage show's peak, the movie turns a family-friendly musical spectacular into an existential crisis: These cats are competing to die. These actors are laboring to mince around like cats. These characters are supposed to be evoking thoughts of mortality and memory. But why? To what end?
That this material seems incapable of articulating any reason for its existence may be its greatest fealty to the cruel and unknowable animal kingdom. Cats is stubbornly meaningless. But its preservation as a big-budget, star-studded movie betrays even that animalistic aesthetic. Cats, as far as we know, do not yearn to be applauded, or remembered.
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