Film review ‘CATS’ by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

When the trailer for Tom Hooper’s cinematic version of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Cats hit the internet a few months ago it’s images of venerable actors like Judy Dench prancing around in furry-faced cat costumes were met with a torrent of ridicule. Sometimes trailers can be deceiving and in the broader context of the film itself, bizarre and ludicrous images can become meaningful. Not here buddy boy, the cat people are ridiculous and yet the unintentional comedy of respected actors dressed as felines is one of the few interesting aspects of this film; when that humour wears off, Cats becomes a snore fest.

Those, like myself, who haven’t seen the stage production will most likely be confused as to what the hell is going on in this film. Essentially, it involves disturbing-looking Dr Moreau-esque cat persons with names like Mr Mephistopheles, Old Deuteronomy and Grizabella singing about themselves and their collective the Jellicle cats (what does that mean? They won’t tell us) and some sort of ritual where a puss is anointed with a prized status that sees them ascend to a fabled cat paradise (I’m not kidding). There’s also an apparently bitter rivalry between the friendly felines and an evil magical cat named Macavity (Idris Elba). None of this wretched mess ever becomes clear in the film.

This is a musical so an incomprehensible plot isn’t necessarily a deal breaker as long as the songs work. Unfortunately, the songs are mostly rambling tuneless narratives about each character or about, well, nothing much at all. They also feature that unforgiveable musical crime, talk singing ala Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady. Admittedly, the film’s most famous number, Memories, is delivered with show-stopping emotion by Jennifer Hudson who plays Grizabella; although who she is and why she’s singing this song remains a mystery.

The original musical was based on the works of TS Eliot, particularly Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. Apart from a few familiar expressions there’s very little sense of Eliot’s superbly bleak poetry here.

Also, Cats achieves the unusual feat of looking weird and dull at the same time. It resembles a filmed stage show with no sense of the cats living in a visceral, functioning world. Some serious coin has probably been poured into the effects that mutate the actors into cat creatures but they look terrible with the cat people floating about awkwardly. The effects and the production design are also oddly inconsistent as the cats’ size in relation to their environment seems to constantly change. In the wake of appropriately scathing reviews, a memo has apparently been hastily dispatched from studio heads saying that a new version with better effects will hit cinemas.

The cast, which also includes Taylor Swift, James Cordon and Rebel Wilson give what could charitably be described as enthusiastic performances in that exaggerated stage musical style. Largely because of the weird incomprehensible material with which they’re working, though, most performances are incoherent and Hudson’s Grizabella aside, generate no emotion other than annoyance. Particularly disturbing, though, is the performance from Sir Ian MacKellan, the venerable and beloved thespian simply offers confused looks, strange pseudo-cat squawks and weird gesticulations.

Perhaps fans of the stage musical will find nuances and hidden pleasures in this film but for the uninitiated, Cats is an embarrassing and perplexing bore and one suspects a film that will, in years to come, be mentioned alongside other notorious turkeys such as Ishtar and Howard the Duck.

Nick’s rating: *1/2

Genre: Musical.

Classification: G.

Director(s): Tom Hooper.

Release date: 26th Dec 2019.

Running time: 110 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


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