There have been two films released on American screens in 2019 that will cause jaws to go slack and eyes to widen in wonder. The first is Gan Bi’s masterful reverie Long Day’s Journey Into Night, with its concluding (spoiler alert?) 50-minute long-take dream sequence. Originally shown in 3-D (St. Louis never had the pleasure of hosting it this way, but even in 2-D, “flat” isn’t an apt descriptor for it), Gan’s unbroken take rushes through tunnels, careens off walls and into valleys, and even miraculously lifts into the air to take the perspective of two people flying – all with diegetic and thematic purpose. It’s a signpost of the good modern technology can bring to an artform only just entering its second century.
Tom Hooper’s cinematic adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s long-running Broadway stage musical Cats is 2019’s other gob-smacking jaw-dropper, but for exactly the opposite reasons. The movie musical is definitely about something – a chosen cat’s journey into the Heaviside Layer, whatever that means – but that is hardly discernible when, at a purely visual level, looking at Cats is like stepping into one of Google’s DeepDream generators where recognizable objects and people are afflicted with a garish and nightmarish surrealism. Hooper’s film presents cinematic technology run amok, propped up by filmmakers making some deeply regrettable and bizarre choices in adapting an already dubiously celebrated production. If this is the sort of evil that modern technology enables, maybe the whole medium just needs to be restarted from scratch.
That’s complete alarmist hyperbole, but from the first moment darling Victoria the cat (sincere newcomer Francesca Hayward) is tossed aside by her owner into a London alleyway that also happens to be a liminal purgatorial space for cat-human hybrid monstrosities, one begins to wonder if the industry should, at the very least, take baseball bats to its computers. Recently, journeys into the uncanny valley have taken up a lot of air in film discourse, especially regarding this year’s stabs at digitally de-aging stars Will Smith in Ang Lee’s middling Gemini Man and the trio of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci in Martin Scorsese’s masterful The Irishman. Tech mileage varies between the two films and even in individual scenes within them, with the success of the de-aging being completely dependent on lighting, performer, and the camera’s proximity to them.
With Cats, everything on screen is varying degrees of awful and terrifying. All the head-scratching details the Internet collectively flipped over when the film’s trailer premiered mere months ago are present in the finished product. A SnapChat face-swap-like filter places the visages of well-known performers – Jennifer Hudson, Idris Elba, and Dame Judi Dench, to name a few – back on top of their own bodies after their forms have been rendered hirsute in post-production. This “digital fur technology” was instantly lambasted for any number of justifiable reasons: the inclusion of the female performers’ breasts; the placement of cat tails emerging from the top of butt cracks; and, perhaps most importantly, the misalignment of actors’ faces with their new feline heads. Among the new, terrifying wonders omitted from the film’s trailers are synchronized tail dancing, shifting cat-to-environment size ratios, paws that appear to float just above the ground’s surface, and some choice costume design that seems motivated by stereotypes tied to the race of the performers. Cats also has an axe to grind with its bigger-bodied characters, consistently making them the butt of some lazily executed and protracted fat jokes, particularly when it comes to performers James Corden and Rebel Wilson.
The latter is subject to one of the most discordant and uncomfortable moments when a Busby Berkeley-esque chorus line of people-faced cockroaches is consumed by her laze-about character, Jennyanydots the Gumbie Cat. This is not, if one can believe, a sequence of words created by playing Mad Libs, but due to Lloyd Webber and co. taking T.S. Elliot’s poems about “Jellicle Cats” – a poetic corruption for “dear little cats” – a little too literally, and then Hooper and co. doing their forebears one step better. After all, Cats the stage musical, which debuted in 1981 in London’s West End, is very much a product of its excessive time, known for performers donning lavish cat costumes and creeping out into the audience. The bigger-than-life quality to the stage experience is one reason for its longevity, despite the fact that critical assessments have been less than stellar.
Other than the obvious “cash-in on popular intellectual property” trend that is so prevalent these days, Hooper’s film raises the question of why Cats ever needed a big-screen adaptation, especially years after its glow has diminished. After helming the Oscar-winning 2012 film adaptation of the popular musical Les Misérables, it would make sense to hire Hooper for such a job – if it even needed to be done – but the director brings the same faux shaky-cam realism and choppy editing from that film to Cats. If there were going to be one pleasure from this version, it would certainly be seeing Jason Derulo and Judi Dench square off in dance, but Hooper’s ramshackle and nonsensical filmmaking renders most bodily movement impossible to follow.
Even if Stockholm Syndrome begins to set in when accomplished actors like Dench and Ian McKellan appear and steal the show with their conviction to feline behavior and innate humane gravitas, there’s always a Taylor Swift around the corner cat-nipping the Jellicle Ball into a horned-up stupor à la Gaspar Noe’s Climax from earlier this year. With that, Hooper’s massive failure resembles the peak of overblown Hollywood musical bombs during the late ’70s and early ’80s – films like Xanadu (1980), Can’t Stop the Music (1979), and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978) – in its willingness to be confoundingly bizarre and impenetrable. That makes Cats marginally admirable even if it is far from successful, and it’s possible that a critical or cultural re-evaluation might find Hooper’s adaptation in good favor in the future just like the aforementioned trio of pop-band tie-in movies. For now, Cats should be trashed for the giant, disgusting CGI hairball it is.