Ah, 2019, a year of cinematic innovation: The leap forward in motion-capture technology in Alita: Battle Angel. The nature documentary quality of The Lion King’s animation. The de-aging of Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci, and Al Pacino in The Irishman. And, just in time for Christmas, the cat’s finally out of the bag on the nightmare-inducing digital fur technology of director Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Cats, which grants cat-like versions of Jason Derulo and Taylor Swift the freedom to do big dance numbers without the burden of feline prosthetics. Only, with CGI covering their entire bodies, not to mention Hooper’s inexplicable need for green screen environments, all that dancing feels terribly inhuman.Cats is a big swing on the big screen, just as it has been in other artistic mediums. But at least on stage, this truly bananas story of stray cats in London going to a big cat dance-off to see who gets chosen to fly away to cat heaven (or is it an alternate dimension?) is backed by a very real physicality from the performers. As a film, Cats is rendered weightless by its special effects, as if the CGI leads every movement, rather than the actual performer. If you look closely, actors’ faces don’t always follow the body of their cat in scenes with a lot of movement (that’d be most of them). The collars many of the cats wear sometimes appear to float slightly off of them rather than obey the rules of gravity. It’s reminiscent of video game graphics from a decade ago. But again, the big tragedy here is how this tech neuters the talent on display in the big dance numbers.
Among the first crew members credited when this travesty ends is choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler. From minute one to the final bow, Cats is a musical, which means there’s pretty much continuous dancing throughout. Blankenbuehler’s hard work, however, is destroyed by special effects that take the human element out of one of mankind’s most artistic expressions, leaving the dance numbers feeling flat and stagey despite the obvious talent of its performers. The editing of these sequences is a hot mess, too, as if afraid to linger too long on any character’s face during a dance number to hide that this cutting edge tech isn’t working.
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Luckily, the cast at least looks like they’re having fun in most of their scenes. There is an over-the-top, utterly wild strangeness to Cats that veterans like Judi Dench and Ian McKellen simply know how to play in. The former gets a hilarious (intentional or not) number in which she stares directly into the camera and sings about how cats should never be treated like dogs. McKellen, meanwhile, can be spotted absurdly licking bowls of milk and making loud cat noises with his limited screentime, which is almost worth the price of admission alone for how truly bonkers it is.
The true star of Cats is ballerina Francesca Hayward, however, who plays Victoria, the new cat in town who is ready to compete for Old Deuteronomy (Dench) to send her up to the sky to be reborn as a better cat, or something. She’s mostly the avatar through which we meet the many other cat characters. Hayward’s singing voice is lovely, but her character falls victim to a script uninterested in garnering any sort of emotional attachment. The only character even close to worth caring about is reject cat Grizabella, and that’s because Jennifer Hudson imbues her two solos with mountains of raw emotion that not even the distracting CGI can diminish.
Otherwise, the first half of the film is like a musical bombardment of guest performers that lead into each other one after another without a chance to catch our breath. James Corden and Rebel Wilson inject personality into their unique numbers, but they feel less like characters and more like themselves behaving like creepy humanoid felines. In fact, no one in the film really feels like they’re acting, but merely being themselves while dancing and doing some cat things. James Corden hisses here, Taylor Swift huffs catnip there. The only exception would be Idris Elba’s chief villain Macavity, with the actor playing deliciously wicked between head jerks and meows.
Often enough, however, something incredibly silly happens, the film’s lifeless qualities slip away, and the cat drags in an undeniable camp value. Dench especially knows what kind of movie she’s in and leans right into it, using the novelty of her specific stardom to milk her scenes for all they’re worth. With moments like these, Cats feels at least a little bit in on its own joke. That quality makes it ripe for ironic viewings. This isn’t necessarily a film that’s enjoyable, or worth paying to see, but expect it to have a long life in dorm halls and indie theaters once the internet has set the rules for the inevitable Cats drinking game.