Review: cats (2019)


Cats (2019)

Directed by: Tom Hooper | 110 minutes | drama, comedy, musical | Actors: James Corden, Judi Dench, Jason Derulo, Idris Elba, Jennifer Hudson, Ian McKellen, Francesca Hayward, Taylor Swift, Rebel Wilson, Robbie Fairchild, Mette Towley, Daniela Norman, Jaih Betote, Larry Bourgeois, Laurent Bourgeois, Jonadette Carpio, Laurie Davidson, Zizi Strallen, Freya Rowley, Naoimh Morgan, Danny Collins, Bluey Robinson, Ray Winstone

Anyone who ventures into the genre of the film musical knows that he is treading treacherous territory. British director Tom Hooper – who has won an Oscar for the historical drama ‘The King’s Speech’ (2010) – knew what he was getting into when he set his sights on a film adaptation of the long-running Broadway musical ‘Cats’. In addition, he had already gained experience with the genre in 2012 with ‘Les Miserables’, which, despite the bombast and sometimes somewhat artificial CGI, looked pleasantly away, partly thanks to the top cast full of stars who can sing as well as act. The fact that ‘Cats’ is different, however, became clear when the first trailer for the film of the same name (2019) went on the air: the alienating digitized cat figures give the phenomenon ‘uncanny valley’ a whole new definition and on the internet the critics tumbled over each other. in their hard-hitting comments. Hooper hastily set to work with what little time he had left to fine-tune and retouch his digital kitties, in the vain hope of saving his life if the film actually premiered. Until the very last moment, right before the premiere. Unfortunately for him, there was little to brush away from a film that is more wrong than digital effects, which are rather uncomfortable to say the least.

The source material of the musical ‘Cats’, which had its premiere in London in 1981, has little to do with it. Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber – who else? – had been inspired by the poetry collection ‘Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats’, which TS Eliot already wrote in 1939 for his godchildren and which is in fact a cheerful collection of verses about all kinds of cats. Webber added pleasant tunes to the ear; each song is an application from another side for a place in the afterlife. Despite the lack of a compelling plot, the musical became a resounding success in many countries, including the Netherlands. The show was performed night after night in London’s West End for twenty-one years. A film adaptation has been planned for about thirty years, but it never got off the ground. Steven Spielberg, who was once linked to the project, didn’t burn his fingers, but Tom Hooper took the plunge and threw everything into the fray. Not only did the sympathetic Briton take the director’s chair, but also acted as producer and together with Lee Hall (who undeniably has a beautiful resume with, among others, ‘Billy Elliot’ (2000), ‘Pride and Prejudice’ (2005) and ‘Rocketman’ (2019)) responsible for the screenplay. Nearly 100 million dollars was thrown at it to apply the latest CGI techniques and to rake in appealing names for the cast. What could go wrong?

So almost everything. We see how the young white cat Victoria (prima ballerina Francesca Hayward, who probably had imagined her debut on the silver screen differently) is dumped on the street in the evening, after which a group of stray cats called the ‘Jellicles’ take care of her. . They introduce themselves and tell her about the Jellicle Ball, an annual celebration that determines which cat is chosen by matriarch Old Deutoronomy (Judi Dench) to be reborn in a place called the Heavyside Layer. However, the evil tomcat Macavity (Idris Elba), who has special powers, threatens to ruin the party of the Jellicles. There is not much more to say about the plot, because otherwise the film is a succession of cat figures who present themselves while singing. They are not complex; one loves the theater (Ian McKellen), another likes to hang out by the tracks (Steven McRae), a flirty hangover who likes to anger others (R’n’B singer Jason Derulo), the glamorous drama queen (Jennifer Hudson), the voracious garbage can-scroaker (talk show host James Corden), the tabby who chases mice and cockroaches (Rebel Wilson), and so on.

Even more shocking than the flawed way in which the characters are sketched is the way they appear on screen: unnatural-looking, with ears and tails that seem to lead a life of their own. Are they CGI creations with (too many) human features, or are they actors who had their naked bodies wrapped in fur? The movements – probably unintentionally – are given an erotic subtext here and there. Speaking of those movements: choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler does his best to lift the song and dance numbers to a higher level, and where he is given the space to do so, ‘Cats’ seems to withdraw from the misery. But usually Hooper’s towering ambitions get in the way of a somewhat stylish staging of the music and dance spectacle. As a result, the songs – normally the asset of a musical – do not pop out. Jennifer Hudson, certainly not a worthy singer, literally sings the snot in front of the tearjerker ‘Memory’, but entering like Barbra Streisand’s memorable version does not do it. And as unparalleled as Dame Judi Dench is as an actress, her qualities as a singer are not exactly impressive. What renowned actors like her, McKellen and Elba do in this musical is a mystery. In addition to the cats, the sets, although beautifully made and colorful, are alienating because of the skewed proportions. Hooper is also completely wrong here.

‘Cats’ is a big flop for Hooper and Universal. The director clearly had something completely different in mind; something that, despite the fact that a great deal is already possible, apparently cannot yet be achieved with current techniques. The human cats are repulsive but fascinating at the same time. Anyone who perseveres and does not give up immediately will notice that looking at those remarkable hairy figures gets used to it at a certain moment and that the second half looks away more easily than the first. But then you still have to struggle through a flood of bombast, kitsch, excess and 23 (!) barely captivating songs. Making a solid film musical is no mean feat, not even with a budget of one hundred million dollars. Hooper will no doubt see that now.

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