I first saw the stage show of Cats thirty years ago, when it toured to the Winter Gardens in Blackpool. I was captivated by the lights, the sound, the magical and emotive score and the dancing felines.
Two decades ago, a version was made for television which caught the spirit of the original show and had many wonderful performances from the likes of Elaine Paige, John Mills and John Partridge. It retained the original choreography and costumes, and kept faithfully to the source book of TS Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. You can catch up with this version on Sky Arts and it is available on DVD.
Now, Tom Hooper returns to movie musicals following his hit a few years ago of Les Miserables. The film has had decidedly mixed reviews, having first been mooted as an animation and then choosing to go down the CGI route. In fact, so problematic has this production been that a “finished” version has been supplied to cinemas after the official release date, and I assume that is what I viewed today at the Vue Westfield London.
This film is an abomination. The CGI is poor from the opening scene, and only serves to depict the cats of the story as extremely weird and disturbing creations, nothing like either the domestic kittens we keep as pets or the regal large cats you find in the zoo or the wild.
For some reason it has a tacked-on plot which elevates a minor character, Victoria, to leading lady status, and develops an ill-advised comedy villain part for Macavity and his moggy henchcat, Growltiger, as they conspire to remove the candidates for the “Jellicle Choice” to ascend to a new life.
Only Judi Dench as Old Deuteronomy (her association with the show goes back to the very start when she was forced to give up the role of Grizabella due to injury), and Ian McKellen as Gus the Theatre Cat some through with any dignity and their playing together speaks loudly of a strong personal and professional association.
The score suffers from an odd remixing and updating, with artificial sounding percussion blighting the opening number and stripped down arrangements pulling the power away from numbers like Mungojerrie and Rumpleteaser.
The only songs which survive this are Old Deuteronomy, Memory (to some degree, although Jennifer Hudson’s Grizabella is saddled with a constantly running nose), and Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat. In the main, though, the score which feels so magical on stage is lifeless and empty here.
The less said about the rest of this film, the better. Idris Elba as Macavity is simply terrifying in CGI cat form for all the wrong reason, and Rebel Wilson’s Jenny-Any-Dots makes you cringe. James Corden is, well, James Corden as Bustopher Jones.
Theatre stalwarts like Robbie Fairchild and Zizi Strallen are sadly wasted in small ensemble roles (just as the musical stage performers were in Hooper’s earlier Les Miserables).
This brings us to Taylor Swift, whose involvement seems purely to get interest abroad and bums on seats. She has contributed a new song, which is tuneless and sits awkwardly with the rest of the score, and seems there simply as Oscar bait – it is not sung well by ballerina Francesca Hayward, either, and she also struggles with the extended role of Victoria.
I am only glad that Dame Gillian Lynne did not live to witness this folly. Tom Hooper has ruined an inventive dance musical, and Andrew Lloyd Webber has sprayed all over the “memory” of his own songs.
The only slight compensation is that it runs less than two hours (although feels longer): long enough at today’s screening for some of my fellow cinemagoers to walk out, do some shopping, and then return to catch the “highlights” of this horror.