Cats are generally believed to be aloof, unfeeling jerks, but those of us with feline companions know these freaky creatures can be tender little lumps of fluff. Still, they don’t show off their bellies to just anyone; they’re not eager for your approval, like dogs. There’s nothing wrong with eagerness, mind you (I love dogs; please don’t tweet at me), but generally cats have some chill.
Broadway musicals have no chill; Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats” is perhaps the least chill Broadway musical of all time, with spandex-and-fake-fur-clad triple-threat humans pretending, intensely, to be cats for two-plus hours without breaking cat-acter.
Tom Hooper’s movie version of “Cats,” though, has the artistic equivalent of insecure attachment disorder and has texted me 20 times since I saw it. And whether you think the movie itself is good or bad, you kind of have to admire the cast and crew’s unflagging determination to entertain you. “Cats” the movie has the same more-is-more aesthetic as the musical, with ever so slightly more than the scant narrative of its source material, which itself was cobbled together from T.S. Eliot’s book “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.”
Even before Hooper plugged the film’s “digital fur technology” in a behind-the-scenes clip that premiered in July, the movie was destined to be an object of derision for some. Lloyd Webber’s “Cats” is probably the most divisive musical there is, even among folks who wouldn’t know their Sondheim from their Rodgers and Hammerstein. And its source text is a delightfully bizarre one-off from the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and playwright with dubious reactionary politics.
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Across the board, though, the bizarre trailer for the big-screen adaptation of “Cats” probably didn’t get the intended reaction of universal delight, despite a world-class cast. That cast includes: Judi Dench, kitted out with a golden mane to play Old Deuteronomy; Idris Elba, with glowing green eyes as Macavity; James Corden as Bustopher Jones; Rebel Wilson making a “crazy cat lady joke” as Jennyanydots; Taylor Swift as the (uncomfortably for the audience) sexy Bombalurina; Jason Derulo as the also uncomfortably sexy Rum Tum Tugger; Ian McKellen as Gus the Theatre Cat; and Jennifer Hudson as tragic Grizabella the Glamour Cat.
It was hard to get past the absurdity of seeing these (mostly) storied actors dressed to the nines as human-size felines … or were they supposed to be cat-size and the set human-size? (Why is it easier to accept McKellen as a powerful wizard or an astonishing mutant than as a grizzled old tomcat?) It seemed like the creative team behind “Cats” was aiming to split the difference between the ultra-realistic CGI of “The Lion King” and the incredible physical prowess required of its performers and landed somewhere in this weirdly motion-captured middle. It just seemed terribly, inexplicably wrong, like those Photoshopped celebrity face mashups that present perfect symmetry as beauty.
The problem turns out to be the special effects. Designed to bridge the gap between the spandex-and-big-wigs aesthetic of the Broadway production and the uncanny valley effect of the updated “Lion King,” Hooper’s digital fur technology made a group of incredibly famous actors and incredibly good dancers look in the trailer less like actual cats and more like cat-aliens in a feline “Avatar” ripoff.
It doesn’t get better in the film. “Cats” never had much of a narrative to begin with, so there’s very little to distract us from the seemingly endless musical numbers other than those uncanny-looking animal-human hybrids and fat jokes by and about Corden and Wilson.
But at Monday night’s premiere, Hooper told Variety: “I finished it at 8 a.m. yesterday after 36 hours in a row. I just put the finishing touches on. So, I’m very happy to be here with it fully finished.”
Still, some problems with the special effects remain: At the critics’ screening on Tuesday, some characters looked like weird humanoid/feline heads were stuck on slightly uncanny bodies, and others looked more like humans in high-quality, tactile costumes with cat makeup and accessories. (The collars and body suits indicate that the performer had been kitted out with a Lycra motion capture suit so their dancing could be properly digitized, whereas it seems Corden and Wilson had the equivalent of digital fat suits. At several points in the film, Wilson unzips her “fur” to reveal clothes underneath — a truly horrifying prospect.)
The subtle ear movements are astonishing, and there’s the occasional glimpse of what the final fur effect could have looked like, given more time — but otherwise, it looks like the most famous actors in the cast were the focus of the special effects work in the final time crunch to finish the film, and everything else was left to the audience’s imagination.
The difficulty, as Shonica Gooden, who played Rumpleteazer in the Broadway revival, explained to Jezebel’s Rich Juzwiak about being in the stage production: “In a show where you are basically on stage the entire time, it is important that you maintain felinity and connection to your cat character at all times. Trust me, some audience member is always watching and waiting for you to come out of cat character.”
They literally went to Cat School to learn how to move like cats, and all I could think about was whether their necks were digitally elongated or whether I was just imagining that Rum Tum Tugger (Derulo, who claimed he got some rather special SFX treatment) was perilously close to nibbling on one of Bombalurina’s back paws.
Speaking of her, it’s a relatively small part for Swift, who plays a weirdly sexy cat who pours catnip-glitter on the crowd of kitties and sing-purrs a solo in “Macavity the Mystery Cat” — but it makes sense that she’s front and center in the ad campaign. Besides being a cat lady herself, Swift is nothing if not absolutely earnest in a musical-theater-nerd way. She is practically the embodiment of the “Cats” thirstiness, a Gypsy Rose Lee demanding to “Let me entertain you / Let me make you smile.”
Honestly, though? One doesn’t as much smile as kind of wince by the end of the full two hours. It’s like that line from “Jurassic Park” — they were so preoccupied with whether they could make humans into motion-captured felines that they didn’t stop to think whether they should.