Cats (2019)

Yeah, I got bribed/sponsored into watching this one as well. However this time it wasn’t my choice of film, and my “delightful” readers decided I needed to watch Cats: the CarCrash dejour of the end of the year. Whilst others had the glory of watching it on opening night or ripped off their tits on an assortment of drugs, I got to do it on a damp Monday with one coffee to keep me going. I have to say that waiting for that coffee was the highlight of my trip.

As a result of waiting a few weeks after release, I can report that when I saw it the FX were mostly fine. There were no “hilarious” goofs, nor the joys/distractions of Cronenbergian body horror. It was a troop of dancers prancing around in what looked like CGI catsuits. If you’ve seen pictures of the stage show it’s pretty much the same as that, including a number of impressive busts on the women and generally nondescript crotches for all. There’s a slight touch more of uncanny valley when the visuals almost work too much, but overall the effect works in making you go “that’s a person in an impressive costume”. Some of them are very impressive costumes, especially Judy Dench’s, but even with the tails, and occasionally the ears, being used to convey cat emotions and behavior it never goes beyond that. It gets worse when movie magic is employed to enhance the performers’ movements because all the jumps and climbs that a human couldn’t do just end up looking like dodgy 90s wire-fu.

But enough about the much-maligned looks of the actors, what about the film itself? Well, it’s not really a film: it’s a stage musical that someone built a fancy set for. Specifically, it’s a stage show from the start of the 80’s that’s had no updates in 38 years. As soon as the dodgy pseudo-pop-rock synth kicks in I felt the dread rise because it sounded exactly like the musical and was a harbinger of how dated and small it was to feel. The sets looked great but appeared to cover maybe 50 meters of one street when it could have used any amount of London as the backdrop. They start at one end and slink towards the other, dipping into a few one or two-room houses on the way, keeping within the confines of a stage rather than thinking actually big. These sets were also used and shot like a stage performance, with lots of lineups and set pieces in a clear middle spot instead of the kind of intricate performance that film allows for.

Not that any of the performances (except for James Corden being James Corden) were bad, in fact, a number of them were (within the limitations of what they had to work with) quite good and would have impressed me had I seen them in a live performance. But that’s a whole different thing, as you can watch a stage show, be indifferent to the material itself, and just be impressed that a person is doing it live. Just having the bottle to stand in front a couple hundred people and try to do a thing involves more bottles than most will ever have, that’s the magic of theatre! But that’s not the magic of movies, so trying to copy it across fails miserably. The best example of this is the tap-dancing scene, where we couldn’t see the tap-dancers’ legs for half of it. I don’t care that they kept the tap beat tight all the way through, that could have all been done on a laptop. Everyone was pitch-perfect? Yeah, Pro-Tools is a thing. All those twirls and shuffles? Nice, but how many takes did they have to hit that 3 second shot before it was good enough to fix in post?

With the danger gone, a film has to survive on plot and character. Well, Cats utterly fails at plot, because from its very foundations it’s the thinnest of connective tissue holding together a series of (very good, but) disassociated T.S. Eliot poems. We’re told that the Jellicle Cats (whatever the hell that means) are meeting at a building, clearly visible from where Victoria the Audience Point of View Cat is abandoned, to decide who gets to be reborn by Cat God, and then we’re introduced to potential winners one-by-one with each getting bumped off by the bad guy. Woo! We also know that none of them die and it happens once a year. No woo! There is a mild love interest between Victoria and Mr. Mistoffelees, but that just happens because.

Characterization is similarly a lost battle as most of why you’re supposed to care about each character doesn’t get exposed until halfway through their song, and then they’re gone for the rest of the show. Although with the less intelligible numbers it’s almost at the end when a new listener has had to piece together everything and make a guess on what the film thinks they should be feeling based mostly on the tone of the music. The ending is similarly signposted, about halfway through the film. The only twist to it all is that after thestory ends it doesn’t end, and you get another blasted song that just drags the whole affair out long after any excitement has been battered out of it.

I really, really, wanted to have something positive to say about this film but I just can’t imagine who would like it. Maybe fans of the stage show, but I’d have thought the lack of live performance would make it all too sterile for them. It could, with a bit of a sense of ambition and adventure, have been something worth watching (like Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables, which makes me wonder how much of a leash he was on). Instead, it’s just drab and pointless. It’s not a horror show; that would at least have made it exciting. It’s just 110 minutes of tedium and tepidity.

The Raggedyman

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