My friends and I were amused by the 20 percent rating “Cats” received on Rotten Tomatoes as well as the 1.6 star average rating on Letterboxd by critics. So naturally, we had to see it.
My friends and I helped contribute at least three tickets to the film’s meager sales, as it struggled to profit off their 100 million dollar budget. So too did the mother and her two children who bought tickets but left after the first five minutes.
Honestly, I can’t blame that mother. Within 15 minutes of the film’s running time, poorly rendered computer generated (CGI) human cockroaches appeared on screen and were being eaten alive by the Gumbie Cat (Rebel Wilson). As soon as this scene played out, I knew we were in for an equally comedic and horrific treat, but not one worth my seven dollar matinee ticket.
This film adaption does not make any major changes to the plot from the original 1981 Broadway musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, which is itself based on T.S. Eliot’s 1939 collection of poetry called “The Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.” The film focuses on a group of cats, who are known as “Jellicles cats,” and how they gather together to attend the Jellicle Ball under a full moon in the streets of London. It is an annual ceremony and talent competition for the cats to participate in for a chance to get chosen to go to the Heaven Side Layer and received a new better life by the Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench), the leader of the tribe.
Staying true to the musical genre, the film contains a total of 20 songs. These include ones that are energetic like “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats” and “The Rum Tum Tugger,” while others are more breathtaking such as “Memory” and “Macavity.”
Due to the amount of songs and the measly dialogue in between, the screenplay lacks originality and investment in storytelling for audiences, especially for the ones who are new to musical theater. There are some scenes where film attempts at humor, but this doesn’t make the film’s tone, as it does not mix well with the drama, leaving it with a choppy tone..
One of the main differences between the movie and the musical was that the film focuses on Victoria the White Cat (Francesca Hayward) as the main character instead of including her as a background ballet dancer. Her character arc feels extremely flat. She seemed like a plot device rather than a character on her own. Some people may argue that Victoria’s purpose is to have the same perspective as the audience, as they are also being introduced to the mysterious world of “Cats;’ however, she does not have enough screen time to develop her character properly, as it switches to multiple cats in the storyline.
While the film manages to squeeze every cat into the run time, that doesn’t give enough time to develop any of the characters. For example, Bombalurina (Taylor Swift) only appears in the “Macavity” scene, and then never returns when the musical number is concluded. The film’s trailer “cat-fished” some of its audiences promising a film full of A-List celebrities who were really only in the film for a couple minutes.
Where the film did shine, however was in its production design. Production designer, Even Stewart was able to oversize some pieces of furniture, like a chair and a table, in order to have the audience to feel shrunk down to the size of a cat. It is also full of color. The milk bar stands out due to the retro blue lighting.
It’s just too bad that production design did not match up to the disturbing and even laughable use of under-rendered CGI. Some of these scenes look entirely unfinished, leaving people in the audience laughing rather than in awe. These included close up and far shots on the cats, where the audience could see their human hands and faces at times.
“Cats” comes after plenty of other movies that have much more successfully used CGI to meld humans and animals. For instance, in “War for the Planet of the Apes,” the filmmakers successfully created a photo-realistic Caesar (Andy Serkis), the leader of the ape tribe, who was also perfectly well-acted. “Cats” fails to do this. The film should have been an animated feature, or had the actors at least return to wearing fashionable fur leggings like on the stage. It became more Bo Welch’s “The Cat in the Hat” and less “Planet of the Apes.”