At the outset of lockdown I gave you my list of top mustn’t-watch films — that is, the ones that aren’t worth the bother — with the rider that when Cats is released digitally it will, however, likely be a must-watch mustn’t-watch. ‘I absolutely must watch this mustn’t-watch,’ you may even have said to yourself, after reading some of the wonderfully terrible reviews. (The Daily Telegraph gave it zero stars. Variety said it was one of those ‘once-in-a-blue-moon embarrassments’.)
And it is as hoped. In fact, it is such a must-watch mustn’t-watch that I watched it twice and never stopped marvelling, even if I will be forever haunted by Ian McKellen lapping milk and a full-on hairy Judi Dench with whiskery chops, although in all fairness, that’s what most of us are going to look like when we come out of quarantine. So it may be right on the money there.
Directed by Tom Hooper (King’s Speech, Les Misérables), this is an adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber stage musical, as based on T.S. Eliot’s poem collection Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, which has run in the West End and on Broadway since, possibly, the beginning of time itself. There isn’t much of a plot. Basically, the ‘Jellicle cats’ gather to decide who will ascend and be reborn (I think) and it’s two hours of cats introducing themselves when not otherwise occupied slut-shaming poor old bedraggled Grizabella.
Aside from McKellen and Dench, the cast includes Idris Elba, James Corden, Rebel Wilson, Taylor Swift, Jennifer Hudson (Grizabella) and Ray Winstone. So it’s all your favourite performers, tragically. It also marks the film debut of Francesca Hayward, the Royal Ballet star who is Kenyan-British but has, weirdly, been whited-up to play white cat Victoria. Yet when it comes
to the look of it that may, actually, be the least of it.
Oh, sweet Jesus, the look of it. It’s like the most frightening, disturbing cheese dream you’ve ever had. These aren’t cats. They’re creepy feline humanoids with digital fur and tails and whiskers but human faces and hands — Dench, as Old Deuteronomy, is even wearing a wedding ring — and mostly they walk upright, which is sinister. Plus it’s all been smoothed out down there, so no genitals or bumholes. (I had a cat once, a tom, and he was all about his genitals and bumhole.) Elba plays Macavity as a shiny, slithering, sex cat but what’s he going to do if he does get lucky? Just bump against a lady from behind?
Elsewhere, the singing is variable (Ray Winstone; sweet Jesus), Wilson and Corden partake in unfunny pratfalls, Taylor Swift is airlifted in on a crescent moon and does something bizarre with cat-nip while Hudson appears to have been airlifted in from another film entirely. Her rendition of ‘Memories’, the one decent song (to my mind), mimics Anne Hathaway’s snot ’n’ tears performance in Les Mis, surely. As for the big dance numbers, they don’t actually happen.
Or they do but don’t. What I mean is, they either happen in spaces so vast they seem inconsequential or Hooper keeps cutting away. Steven McRae, another Royal Ballet star, plays the railway cat and the whole time he was dancing I was praying: keep the camera on him, keep the camera on him, keep the camera on him… oh great. Now you’ve cut away.
The film is flat, without any of the camp, kitsch high energy that characterised the stage show, but its wrongness is never less than mesmerising. I am rarely quoted
on film posters but if I were asked I would be happy to offer this: ‘If a better must-watch mustn’t-watch comes along this year, next year, or any year, I will be very, very surprised.’
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