Susan Sontag once defined ‘Camp’ as being ‘a seriousness that fails’. On all fronts, Cats is obviously a failure, but the question iss how intentional it all is. After all, it’s impossible to bring any dignity to a film about singing, magical cats, yet somehow this cinematic adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s long-running musical is bizarre beyond just its premise, making choices that push it into psychotic pseudo-sexual strangeness instead of childish whimsy.
Even the jokes within Cats are so basic that it creates this surreal disconnection between Cats’ world and our own, where all strands of logic dribble out of your head, leaving you staring into this ill-conceived abyss.
Never before has a film simultaneously had no plot and far too much. Cats begins with stray cat Victoria (Francesca Hayward) being literally thrown into an alleyway, before being immediately confronted by other human-cat hybrids.
These creatures bombard her with chants about ‘Jellicle Cats’, one of whom will be selected for the ‘Jellicle Choice’, an ascension into the ‘Heaven Side Layer’, or implied form of reincarnation. Neither Victoria nor us have any time to process such information before we are thrust into introductions of each of these ‘Jellicle Cats’, which occur in rapid succession, right until the film ends.
Discussing the ‘acting’ in Cats is pointless, both because there’s no time for these characters to exhibit any depth, and because the actors are constantly obscured by horrendous CGI fur that makes them an uncanny chimera of human and cat, often with their human faces, hands and feet creepily floating around their animated bodies. Distanced shots render the CGI creatures akin to a mid-2000s video game cutscene, but close-up takes only enforce the distracting look of Cats’ creatures.
Despite the obscurity, Hayward undeniably fails as our de-facto protagonist, having no agency and a singular open-mouthed expression during the film. Her ballet skills are hampered by the digital effects. Her singing is quite painfully bad, awkwardly speak-singing through the film’s original song ‘Beautiful Ghosts’.
The actual singers are the clear standouts, Jason Derulo and Taylor Swift bringing authentic life to their cats, and Jennifer Hudson can reliably belt out ‘Memories’ – although she is only provided the single emotion of crying (complete with distracting running-nose), and such flashes are so miniscule they cannot redeem the film.
Cats’ succeeded on-stage of course, but if the poor VFX neuters the cinematic translation, the incompetent direction is what kills it. For a musical there is absolutely no rhythm in theediting, cuts often seeming so unsynchronised with the beats that it actively distracts from the choreography, which is already rendered limp and weightless by the poor digital effects.
Tom Hooper is unable to bring any movement or logic to his direction, so that everything feels stiff and awkward as well as incomprehensible. Lingering close-ups on cats only add to this confusion, creating frequent moments which are unintentionally hilarious from how misguided they are.
Somehow, on top of all this, Cats manages to be quite boring. Since there are no emotional stakes, or even a basic structure, the incessant introduction to these Jellicle Cats quickly becomes tiresome. Once the novelty of this train-wreck wears off, you are still trapped with these prancing, strangely-smug looking cats for another hour.
Cats is certainly a unique experience, the kind of disastrous big-budget filmmaking that rarely comes along, but its existence prompts many uncomfortable questions about logic and taste – of why such a thing exists. Cats provides no answers, it exists for its own sake and in its own world – its Cats all the way down.
Image: Effie via Wikimedia Commons