We at Flixist, like the rest of the Internet, were simultaneously amused and horrified by the trailer for Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Cats in the summer. But although I’m the first to admit that I can jump on the hype and criticise, I also think there’s an argument to be made for making your own mind up about films and seeing it from a different perspective.
Aside from The Rise of Skywalker this Christmas (which I enjoyed, but that’s a whole other discussion), Cats was perhaps the most polarising film of the year. Given its stone-cold reception from early press screenings, you’d think that it was entirely irredeemable. But in my own experience, as much as it surprises me to say it, I don’t think this is the case. No, before you ask, my defence of Cats is not summarised by “drugs.” I know it’s a problematic film, and feels trippy in the sense that something like Performance or a Beatles film does. But it’s actually much simpler than that.
To be honest, I think critics are suffering from a case of taking the whole thing too seriously — and forgetting that films are made to entertain.
True, I thought Cats was terrible and weird. I agree with many of the points raised in our own Jesse Lab’s review. However, in the cinema, against all my better judgement, people seemed to really enjoy it. I was in a screening populated mostly by elderly people and kids who laughed at the jokes, especially the slapstick pratfalls. As I cringed in my seat waiting for inevitable sniggering, instead there was an awed silence at appropriate moments. I’d venture so far as to say that even the child behind me who made cat noises on his way out was proof that the film actually made money (albeit less than predicted, but money nonetheless) at the box office. At the end of the day, people want a bit of escapism from the stresses of Christmas, and to watch a visual spectacle. Don’t we all deserve to step out of reality for a while sometimes?
I’ll concede: it’s not necessarily to say that I found a lot of value in the film. Lloyd-Webber’s opening overture felt like a recurring nightmare and I’m pathologically terrified of the Hammond organ from now on and forever. Many of the songs weren’t to my taste, savouring too much of stale 80s compositions to be enjoyed (though Magical Mr Mistofelees is an earworm, thanks to Laurie Davidson’s musical talents.)
And, true to all the criticism online, I really didn’t appreciate the human-cats. They didn’t bridge the gap naturally, looking neither like anthropomorphised felines or humans that were especially cat-like. The distasteful fur, of course, was the final nail in the coffin of this madness. I’ll also agree that talented actors such as Idris Elba, Judi Dench and Ian McKellen were sorely miscast. The addition of Taylor Swift for her cabaret routine felt fabricated entirely for marketing purposes, her appearance in promotional material exceedingly disproportionate to her screen time. James Corden, equally, should have learned from the flop that was Into The Woods not to cross into musical theatre territory. And while Rebel Wilson is an entertaining performer, she was ill-suited to a cat costume (though at least Jason Derulo’s Rum Tum Tugger points this out.)
In addition, there were indiscreet tonal inconsistencies, in that we’d be watching a show number one minute, and the next would cut to a scene in which the cats prepare to fight one another. I do feel as though it lacked fluidity between these scenes, which is something that the director of a film as thoughtfully planned as The King’s Speech could have improved. I’m aware that he made an argument that the film was barely finished before being pushed towards its festive release date, but I know that doesn’t give an excuse for a film on that scale.
In the same way that Sonic created unhealthy ripples through the Internet earlier this year leading to a complete redesign, Cats will be receiving VFX updates in theatres. This unusual move can only have been prompted by the film’s poor reception and Hooper’s desperation to rectify the hyperbolic response to his work. While this might improve it somewhat, I’m inclined to hope that he’d leave it as it is. At the end of the day, many sub-par films have been released in the past — it’s not as if this is the first flop on its theatrical release. And it’s interesting to dissect.
There are parts of Cats that mean it just doesn’t work as a film adaptation; but my first point is that it’s because the musical itself is unforgivably strange. There’s no doubt about Lloyd-Webber’s questionable thematic material in the past, from Stockholm Syndrome in Phantom of the Opera to a musical bordering on the blasphemous in Jesus Christ Superstar. The thing with Cats is that it’s difficult to understand as it stands, let alone through a film adaptation. (It’s been parodied many times, most effectively in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.) My point is that the criticisms levelled at its plot couldn’t be helped: those are not Tom Hooper’s fault, but rather I like to think that he’s tried to make it more accessible through the film.
Since The King’s Speechin 2010 and Les Misérables in 2012, I’ve become something of a Tom Hooper apologist. I enjoy his work, and Les Mis was my intro into a teenage phase that spanned reading the entire 1200-page novel, seeing at least four stage adaptations, talking about it ad nauseam and writing up an entire episode-by-episode review of last year’s BBC adaptation. Now that I know the material in greater depth, I’m not afraid to say, retrospectively, that his film adaptation was flawed. It wasn’t received especially warmly by pre-existing fans or critics. I can’t not be aware of the repetitive use of a particular set, or the way a character is filmed at an unflattering angle, or a blatantly shoehorned relationship, or an off note. But to pick up on all these things really seems to be missing the point. It was a film that introduced me, and many others, to something that’s been greatly enriching and a huge amount of fun.
In the same way, Cats might be the introduction to musical theatre that a lot of people wouldn’t necessarily have access to. The elitist nature of live theatre is no secret and it’s what pushes many idealists away from that arena. Since not everyone lives in a city with a big arts scene, I think it’s only fair that the general public should get to see a film that emulates the same response as it going to see a show. If you want to imagine you’ve just seen a West End show, you should go for it. At the end of the day, it’s entertainment and spectacle for a fraction of the cost and it heralds back to the earliest days of cinema when films were pure entertainment. No auteurship, no fan culture, just a fun night out.
Which leads into my second point. Being a film fan, whether you’re a critic, the movie buff in your friend group, or just a casual viewer, part of the fun is in seeking out like-minded people with whom you can share your enthusiasm. But I think the flipside of this is that we can become too isolated, too siloed in our own little bubble. Talking to people from different walks of life who haven’t ensconced themselves in the movie or theatre scene can give you a perspective on films that, while not necessarily as nuanced and fluent as you might expect from a professional reviewer, points to the reality of why films are made. Lest we forget, there are plenty of people who just go to the movies occasionally for a bit of fun, to relax after a long week or to see something at Christmas. And if kids like the cats and there’s a bit of magic, who am I to judge what they like?
In addition, the performances weren’t entirely to be scoffed at. The lead cat, Victoria, was played by The Royal Ballet’s principal ballerina Francesca Hayward. The subject of a documentary in 2016, Hayward has had lifelong aspirations to become a ballerina and her story is especially moving; I’d urge you to watch the documentary, Dancing the Nutcracker — Inside the Royal Ballet, if you haven’t.
I know that it’s vital to separate the performer from the performance — you might argue that McKellen and Dench have just as much right to be defended, and their position in the film doesn’t excuse a poorly executed production. But Hayward is a talented performer and it has to be inspiring for kids to watch and see someone who really acts with conviction and performs not as if she’s in a farce, but in a serious production. That can’t be overlooked. Furthermore, Dench had to pass up the opportunity of a lifetime to play Grizabella in a Broadway production nearly 40 years ago due to an injury sustained on set, so let’s let her have her moment singing the finale, Addressing a Cat, as the superior Jellicle leader, Old Deuteronomy.
For all its hallucinogenic fear-mongering, I could see the strange redemption story within the ashes. The cat Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson), while shunned by the rest of the Jellicle tribe, has had a painful life, cast down from her once glamorous position in a wealthy household. She aspires to have a new life at the tribe’s annual ritual, the Jellicle Choice, so that she can ascend to the Heaviside Layer (aka Heaven) to have a new life. Yes she’s a cat and yes it’s nonsensical. It might be strange — and you might acutely feel the dissonance of American actors signing passionately about specific London locations like Tottenham Court Road, St James’ Park, and Trafalgar Square, which situates the film firmly in a space and time that they seem to be invading. They’re also unapologetically scaled to all the wrong dimensions. But it’s really just a story about (to quote the film) wanting to be wanted.
All in all, I’m making a simple point. While I’ve seen better films than Cats, it’s not a lost cause. Its faults are largely inherent to the absurd nature of the musical and couldn’t have been rectified through any kind of adaptation. Indeed, many poor and illogical choices were made in terms of casting, production design, choreography and dialogue; but some stand-out performances show conviction and can be magical for kids. I agree that it might have been embarrassing, uncomfortable, nauseating, crass, and in bad taste — but that didn’t seem to stop a theatre full of people turning out to see it over Christmas. After all, it’s a bit of bonkers, magical escapism, and we’re all entitled to indulge in a little madness now and then.