It’s as though director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) accidentally left the Snapchat filter on while filming Cats, the long-awaited film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s celebrated musical of the same name.
Doing away with the elaborate costumes of the Broadway hit, he has digitised the characters by superimposing their faces onto an amalgamation of motion-captured and practically designed bodies. The result is peculiar – and often disturbing – and yet it is this very quality that transports us into a world of pure fantasy.
The original stage production of Cats has always been divisive and Hooper’s new film will not resonate with its original detractors. Long-serving fans, however, will lap it up like milk from a saucer (sorry, it was there for the picking), while newcomers may find themselves confused and challenged – and hopefully enchanted.
This particular musical is arguably Lloyd Webber’s most obscure and difficult to digest, which explains why a film version has languished in development hell for over 20 years. Once considered as an animated adaptation, the production was thrown in to the too-hard basket before Hooper revived it following his successful film production of Les Misérables.
Based on a book of poems by T.S. Elliot, Cats tells the story of the Jellicles, a tribe of stray cats that roam the backstreets of old London. They are a ragtag mob of characters that welcome in an abandoned feline named Victoria (Francesca Haward) and introduce her to their weird and wonderful world. A villainous cat named Macavity (Idris Elba) torments the group and kidnaps several of them including their highest-ranking member, Old Deuteronomy (Dame Judi Dench). An ostracised cat named Grizebella (Jennifer Hudson) broods around the story’s fringes, longing for acceptance while the cats dance and prance their way through a series of musical numbers and episodic marker-points, bringing the mega-musical to the big screen in a larger than life extravaganza.
Admittedly Cats was a perplexing experience for me, but not a joyless one. There’s a disturbing sense to watching humanoid cats convey cat-problems in human terms, and the digital synthesis is quite disconcerting. Had the production maintained the refined environmental parameters of the stage show, the characters may have been easier to comprehend. However, as Hooper opens up their universe with big cityscape backdrops, he invites the audience into a world of make-believe where suspension of disbelief is mandatory. And then there came a point where I succumbed to the magic. This entry point will be different for everyone but for me, it was the fantastic number ‘Mr Mistoffelees’, which – granted – is quite late into proceedings.
The drawcard billings on the poster read; James Cordon, Judi Dench, Jason Derulo, Idris Elba, Jennifer Hudson, Ian McKellen, Taylor Swift and Rebel Wilson. It’s certainly a strong ensemble, each with their own-featured sequence. Dench’s character is presented as female for the first time, giving it a greater sense of tenderness. Cordon and McKellen are particularly effective, giving well measured doses of comedy to remind us of the ridiculousness of the whole damn thing, and yet the film’s greatest strength is its casting of actual theatrical thespians. Francesca Hayward is an absolute delight and lights up the screen with her inquisitive and compassionate performance. Other stage players include Robbie Fairchild as Munkustrap, Steven McRae as Skimbleshanks and Laurie Davidson as Mr. Mistoffelees, arguably the most irresistible performance of the film.
As with most stage-to screen adaptations, liberties and alterations are imperative. In this instance several musical numbers were omitted, others condensed, and Lloyd Webber and Taylor Swift wrote an all-new song. While not being overtly familiar with the stage show (although I have seen it), I can appreciate that these changes made for a more fluent and palatable movie-going experience, and despite my initial reservations, I came out having experienced something unique and a little bit mind-altering.
With its freak-show qualities and nightmare-inducing digi-cat creations, Cats has to be seen to be believed. Remember that the premise was silly even on stage and that giving in to the surrealism is part of its charm.
In cinemas: December 26, 2019
Starring: Taylor Swift, Idris Elba, Judi Dench
Directed by: Tom Hooper