Starring-Francesca Hayward, Jennifer Hudson
Scott’s Review #1,086
Reviewed November 27, 2020
Branded with the pesky “one of the worst film’s of all time” title, the 2019 rendition of Cats, made famous by the 1981 Broadway show, has also been met with “it’s so bad it’s bad” jokes and snickers at its mere mention. While it’s not quite abysmal as a total package, the derision is justified mostly because the cat characters look beyond strange. The studio scrambled the film into theaters just in the nick of time so it would receive Oscar consideration. It backfired and the film received no nominations.
Unsurprisingly, Cats was a box-office disaster.
I’m going to defend Cats…..slightly. Sometimes a film with so much promise and possibility become like the poor kid on the school playground; bullied because somebody must be the outcast. It’s not fair, but there it is.
Having never seen the Broadway musical despite living just outside of New York City my entire life and the show running for forever, the premise seems silly enough. A band of singing felines spend one memorable night in a London junkyard belting out musical numbers as they look forward to an upcoming ball, and take a young, abandoned cat named Victoria (Francesca Hayward) under their wing.
Many characters (all cats) are introduced at various periods of time through song. Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) and Asparagus (Ian McKellen) are the senior members, providing wisdom and stoicism. Idris Elba plays the mischievous Macavity, while Jennifer Hudson plays Grizabella, the outcast cat once a legend at the theater, but now in tatters. Finally, Rebel Wilson and James Corden provide comic relief as Jennyanydots and Bustopher Jones, respectively.
The unwieldly cast featuring more than a handful of respected Hollywood legends and A-list stars leads me to believe that the studio and film makers had high hopes for the project. At a budget of 100 million, expectations were high, but things quickly went south. Respected director, Tom Hooper, well-known for churning out the powerful The King’s Speech (2010) and Les Misérables (2012) was awarded the embarrassing Golden Raspberry awards for Worst Director and Worst Screenplay. Yikes!
Okay, the art direction and the set design are fantastic and the high point of the film. Once I was quickly over the plot, garish costumes, and weird choreography, I immersed myself in the look and the production values, thankful that someone did their job correctly.
The colors are glossy and bright, giving a shimmering, lush tone that dazzled me. The London backdrop is magnificent, and many scenes provide glimpses of Big Ben, Tower Bridge, and other lovely landmarks. The rundown theater set is a highlight and adds murky and dusty atmosphere, creatively done.
The songs start out shaky, but quickly escalate into respectability and even grandiose pizazz. Teetering too long in the first act with a seemingly never ending “Overture” and “The Naming of Cats”, the film finally evens out with the best numbers in the production. The gorgeous and powerful “Memory” introduces the wonderful “Beautiful Ghosts” and fortunately are reprised later. Hudson nearly deserves a second Oscar for her haunting rendition of “Memory” while Hayward does well with “Beautiful Ghosts”.
That’s where the positives end.
Stalwarts, Dench, McKellen, Hudson, and newcomer Hayward perform their parts with dignity and refined professionalism, but it’s hard not to giggle anytime they are onscreen. Not that this is their fault and hopefully they were spared watching dailies or attending the film premiere. At least they can console themselves with a hefty paycheck. Each looks beyond ridiculous in their costumes, looking like a cross between a human being in bad attire and a strange creature from another planet.
This is what happens when things are half done. Any attempts to re-release the film with “improved effects” seem desperate and unprofessional.
The problem is not only that the actors look funny, but that it distracts from any other real enjoyment because a viewer will need to talk about the costumes above and beyond any other aspects. Each character looks awkward and uncomfortable with misused CGI and weird creeping, crawling, and prancing around the stage…..or in this case film set.
Besides the two awesome musical numbers, Cats feels watered down and not about anything specific, lacking any deeper meaning I picked up on. At the end of the day, it’s merely about a bunch of cats singing songs, occasionally hissing or swatting at each other for effect.
Andrew Lloyd Weber’s beloved stage musical will take time to recover from the film version of Cats (2019). Advisable is to watch the film once to experience and elicit a reaction, then put the film away in a secure box forever and pretend it never happened.