The big-screen adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera was a flop. The big-screen adaptation of The Cat in the Hat, featuring Mike Myers in gruesome cat makeup, was a flop. You'd think Hollywood would have learned from this. And yet we now have Cats, essentially a CG-laden hybrid of Phantom and Cat in the Hat. And it, of course, is a flop.
This is not the sort of movie I would have ever chosen to see, even if it was good. The original stage version of Cats seems like an embarrassment for all involved, and Lloyd Webber's music has always struck me as cheesy. And yet I saw Cats because my wife grew up on Broadway musicals and listened to the Cats soundtrack a million times as a child, and while she won't say that the live show is actually good, she nevertheless harbors a weird nostalgia for its dorky theatrics. Agreeing that the movie version of Cats was sure to be a train wreck (who wouldn't, after seeing the trailer?), she joined me for several cocktails before we sat down for a late showing on Christmas Eve, hoping for some good drunken laughs.
For the uninitiated, the stage version of Cats takes the text from T. S. Eliot's 1939 poetry collection Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats and sets it to Lloyd Webber's music. Its whiff of a plot: a bunch of London alleycats gather to perform musical numbers for a Godlike cat named Old Deuteronomy (played in the film by Judi Dench), who then chooses one lucky feline to ascend to the Heaviside Layer (an actual layer in Earth's ionosphere which, in the musical, is a metaphor for rebirth). The end.
For their screen adaptation, writer/director Tom Hooper and cowriter Lee Hall (Rocketman) have added snippets of dialogue and extra plot, in which the devilish Macavity (Idris Elba), yearning to be the chosen one, now has the inexplicable power to teleport his rival cats to a barge on the Thames. Meanwhile, dancing cat Victoria (English ballerina Francesca Hayward) serves as passive protagonist and surrogate audience member, gazing wide-eyed at her fellow felines as they perform their numbers.
Here's the worst thing about Cats: it's not campy, over the top, or any sort of fun, intentional or otherwise. Watching the film, I could palpably sense that everybody, both in front of and behind the camera, knew that none of this was working, but trudged ahead anyway, either for the paycheck or out of misguided optimism.
The design of the characters – makeup and costumes heavily embellished with digital fur – is unsettling, to say the least. The stage musical may look no better, with actors leaping about in face paint and unitards. But a live performance must at least imbue that creepiness with energy. Given the polite remove of a feature film that's about 99% computer graphics, Hooper's Cats has no energy at all. The songs come and go, the camera and edits are arbitrarily placed, the bits of dialogue are dashed off, and the cast acts like they're on a big stage in an empty theater – which, as it turns out, they are.
Maybe future generations with an evolved sense of irony can hate-watch Cats the way it was meant to be hate-watched. For now, though, I'm sorry to say that the movie is simply lame.