Grackles review CATS
Directed by Tom Hooper
Reviewed by Mandy L. Hughes and Brian Clifton
CATS is about, you guessed it, cats. Tom Hooper adopted the Broadway musical for the silver screen, and the Broadway version by Andrew Lloyd Webber is based on T.S. Eliot’s book of children’s verse called Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. The movie is a nesting doll of references—both by nature and throughout its script. Its “plot” follows Victoria, a cat abandoned on the turf of The Jellicle Cats (a local group of roaming cats) on the night of the Jellicle Ball—a yearly ritual in which one cat is granted access to the “heaviside layer” to be reborn as another cat. But the film, though it tries, is not so much about telling a story. Instead it spirals through the various characters that make up the Jellicles and their relationships to one another.
Mandy L. Hughes: So, CATS. I saw this when it opened, and I have to say that my expectations were pretty low. I generally like Tom Hooper’s stuff, but his Les Mis had some issues for me. After seeing the trailers, I was just perplexed by what they were trying to do, and now that I’ve seen it, I think I know: they were trying to make a movie. And that’s the mistake. Hooper’s Les Mis had a better thing, or at least an easier thing going for it, since that play has a pretty traditional type of plot. It was easy to make into a movie adaptation. There wasn’t that much adapting to do. CATS, I think, is much more of a problem because it has the least plotty plot of all. It’s really a dance concert, with a veneer of situation stretched over it to string the dances together, and I think that’s the only reason it works as a piece of theater. It’s about the spectacle of watching people (dancers) move like cats because cats express themselves that way, through movement, so we get to experience some weird T.S. Eliot and enjoy the physicality of professional dancers. The movie loses all of that. There’s barely any dance, and you have Robbie Fairchild and Francesca Hayward (trained dancers) in it! They tried to create this plot, a complex story with a bad guy and a conflict, so that it could be a MOVIE, and they turned a piece of theatrical spectacle into a pale shadow of what it should have been.
Brian Clifton: I sort of agree with the adding plot—the moments when Hooper injected narrative most directly into this film were the most cloying—and yes the waves of CGI washed away the physical spectacle of flesh and bones dancers. That said, CATS, the play, was weird in its own right—beyond it’s non-plot. Adults pretending to be cats and singing T.S. Eliot’s poetry is just about the least likely concept I could think of to become the 4th longest running Broadway musical. CATS, the film, seems to hold that weird starting ground up as a mirror to where we are culturally. This, I don’t think, is too far away from the original CATS. It premiered in ’81—right after the launch of MTV—so I think the whole dance concert feel of it makes sense. But what does the film have to spring off of? Cat-memes mostly. The struggling plot and the fakeness of the animation shift the weird from the 80s to today. For me, watching CATS was like scrolling through an acquaintance’s Instagram and being disconnected from all the images Instagram’s algorithm plugs into their feed but knowing the structure behind it—an odd peek into a universe that fits together but with stains and puckering seams. Sure, it was disorienting (especially with the weird scale shifts between actors and scenery). Sure, the plot was hamfisted and unnecessary. But Rum Tum Tugger (played by Jason Derulo) kicking on a machine that dispenses milk into the mouths of two computerized catlike creatures is exactly the surrealism 2019 needed to end on.
MH: I’m right there with you for the disconnectedness, but for me it was like seeing a weird Instagram of someone I know in real life—it’s just not quite the person I know, my acquaintance’s account but controlled by Tom Hooper? It was definitely disorienting. I also do not think Hooper uses his cast well. Like with Star Wars, Episode I: we know that most of those people can act, and yet look what we got. I think there are general problems with the use of what should be a pretty decent cast. Jennifer Hudson sounds terrible, emoting all over the place (and could someone please wipe her nose?). “Memory” is a notoriously difficult song, but I’ve heard her do it better, much much more effectively. Rum Tum Tugger’s cool leather jacket (cause that’s how leather jackets work in costuming) has become some questionably trendy fur jacket (a cat wearing a fur? a played-out joke we’ve already seen by the time we get to him). Jennyanydots is sacrificed for cheap jokes, not funny jokes that we don’t need because we have Bustopher Jones, and Mr. Mistoffelees’s number is undercut and loses all of its momentum for the sake of a struggling plot. And I love Idris Elba as much as the next person, but the thing about Macavity is that he’s NOT THERE. This Macavity is flipping everywhere. And don’t get me started on Bombalurina—Swift is not good, but neither is the reimagination of that role.
BC: I’m with you on the Swift as Bombalurina. Those five minutes play like Taylor Swift went up to Hooper and said, “Here’s a music video I made, just make me a cat and put it in your film.” And Hooper thought it would boost sales. But even her voice alone does not quite reach the je ne sais quoi needed to sing about the hidden paw himself—its sensuality is too one-dimensional, its sense of mystery naive, its pain, if it has any, self-indulgent. It’s almost like Swift is singing about a dog and not the cat who has broken every human law (and the law of gravity). And yes, Macavity was everywhere. He’s supposed to be the bass note lurking in a fragrance, the aperitif to a decadent meal, but he’s in the film so much he becomes kitschy, slapstick, cloying. That was far more an unfortunate situation than his not getting sent to the heaviside layer. Were there any parts that you did enjoy?
MH: I do have to say that I thought Ian McKellan was just perfect as Gus the Theatre cat. I’m always a McKellan fan, and I don’t know if this was just a stroke of great casting or a great actor who really understands this role (I mean, let’s face it, at 80, the actor has a great deal of perspective on the theatre of days gone by, and he’s even said he will stop doing big Shakespeare roles because his memory isn’t what it once was), but the whole shebang was worth it if only for his performance. And I do think that several of the performances are pretty good. Judi Dench as (a female?!?) Old Deuteronomy and Iris Elba as Macavity are doing their best with some weirdly situated parts. I, who am not necessarily a cat person, just want to adopt Laurie Davidson’s Mr. Mistoffelees, and Munkustrap (my favorite cat from the play and our sort of narrator) was very well executed by Robbie Fairchild—I was quite pleased, except that I wanted to see more of him. Francesca Hayward is very reactive and sweet as Victoria the White Cat (who incidentally isn’t pure white in the movie), although I wish Hooper wasn’t constantly cutting away from the dancing to show us her face so that we the audience would know what emotion we are supposed to be having. That’s a sign of weak storytelling, and it seems as though Hooper was afraid of the spectacle—the “Spectacular Spectacular” element, to quote Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge. Maybe what this movie needed was someone like Luhrman at the helm to let the audience get immersed in the spectacular, overwhelming weirdness of Cats the musical rather than try to show us intimate personal moments like he did (quite well, I think) in The Danish Girl or The King’s Speech.
BC: Dench did an excellent job at being a stately cat! She and McKellen definitely made the movie. And yes, I think you’re right about the weak storytelling and needing to show us Hayward’s face to make sense of what was going on. It seems like that could have been solved with foregoing narrative altogether, but alas. In the middle of the film, I started thinking this is like a diluted Luhrman–even his most narrative projects (his version of Gatsby and The Get Down) seemed more interested in the image than consequence in action. CATS definitely needed that focus, that willingness to go full bore into the singular moment. With its problems and directorial missteps, I think CATS was a quirky holiday release (much like Yorgos Lanthimos’ more artful yet equally problematic 2018 film The Favourite). It may not be the best thing you’ll see, it may not last the test of time, but CATS is the perfect summation of a weird point in 21st century pop culture.
Mandy L. Hughes is a PhD Candidate in Early Modern Literature at the University of North Texas, where she focuses on old texts and what we do with them in the now. When she’s not writing about plays or their adaptations, she can often be found at the theatre.
Brian Clifton has work in: Pleiades, Guernica, Cincinnati Review, Salt Hill, Colorado Review, The Journal, Beloit Poetry Journal, and other magazines. They are an avid record collector and curator of curiosities.