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The Slog Comes in on Little Cat Feet

Universal Studios/The Really Useful Group Ltd./Perfect Universe Investment Inc.
Naoimh Morgan as Rumpleteazer, Francesca Hayward as Victoria, and Danny Collins as Mungojerrie in Tom Hooper’s Cats, 2019

It is important to remember that the conceit of Cats, the era-spanning musical adapted into a film this winter, is that all the characters are cats—singing cats, dancing cats, fat cats, skinny cats, cats that prowl the docks: cats. The show is dogged in reminding us. The songs, when not explicating the wisp of a story, describe varieties of cat, such as the Gum­­bie Cat and the Railway Cat, while the cast, on-screen as on-stage, have cat ears, fur, and tails. But whatever else it was, Cats the musical, which premiered in London in 1981, was primarily a human variety show: a pastiche of twentieth-century music and dance tethered to some of T.S. Eliot’s lightest verse. Amid the jazz choreography and leg-warmers, the trash-strewn Thatcherite dystopia of the set and the guileless pizzazz of the performances, the stars of the Broadway run were never convincingly cats, just particularly exuberant people. In Cats the movie, they are not even convincingly human.

As of this writing, the movie is poised to be a box office disaster and a cult classic, an ironic reversal of the musical’s fortunes. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats was an improbable smash hit that ran for eighteen years on Broadway. Tourists loved it and serious theater queens derided it (Roy Cohn in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: “Cats! It’s about cats, singing cats!”), and in the process this peculiar showcase became a watchword for the sellout, blockbuster future of Times Square. The film’s abject failure, on the other hand, has attracted queers, downtown ironists, camp enthusiasts, and anyone looking for a Hollywood product that is not about the dour moral posturing of superheroes. But Cats the film is not Cat People the film, neither the 1942 horror classic nor Paul Schrader’s campy 1982 remake. Cats’s aesthetics are glossy and appalling, not handmade and flamboyant; it is boring when it should be weird and weird when it should be sincere. It is the extruded plastic from the Disney factory floor, the byproduct of the convulsions of an industry increasingly unsure of how to represent human beings at all.

This is not, on the whole, the fault of the actors. Drawn from the ranks of British film and theater and international dance—plus Taylor Swift—most of them seem to have shown up on set with the élan of a child embarking on summer vacation. This enthusiasm is a blessing for the longueurs to come, as one by one the cast spins out the inscrutable tale of the annual Jellicle Ball, when all the street cats of London convene to dance and sing. At the conclusion of the ball, Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench), the spiritual leader of the Jellicle community, will choose one performer to ascend to the Heaviside Layer, which seems to mean “heaven,” where the victor will be reborn into a new Jellicle life. There is a suggestion of conflict as the devious Macavity (Idris Elba) kidnaps a few of his competitors, but the gestures toward plot and the scant dialogue serve only to introduce new songs and new cats. It is an exemplary show for theater kids, with its suggestions of audition and arrival, of a life’s purpose realized through performance.

Curious, then, that in lieu of costumes the filmmakers would choose to drape the performers’ bodies in layers of unsightly and expensive motion-capture computer graphics. But where Marvel movies, for instance, are fundamentally uninterested in the human body and what it can do, this attention is central to Cats, which is at heart a talent show. Forcing the literal-minded heaviness of the Hollywood special-effects machine onto the earnest, put-on-a-show spirit of the musical is like asking the glee club to use auto-tune. Why would you saddle a principal from the Royal Ballet with the camouflage of digital fur? Committed to spending nearly $100 million on what was already a successful property, the studio and the director, Tom Hooper, decided that it was not sufficient to hire a troupe of talented artists and point a camera at them; Hooper seems to have concluded that cinema is an art made in postproduction and that only the application of money and CGI could effectively convey the story of Bustopher Jones. (The story is that he is fat and wears white spats.)

The technology is onerous, and it is strange. This goes beyond the problem of the uncanny valley common to digital animation. To be sure, it doesn’t help matters that the animation is often a mess: the film was reportedly being worked on right up until its premiere, and the studio still had to deliver a revised print to theaters a week after its initial release; most obviously to the untrained eye, the actors’ faces often seem to float and slide around in their cat heads. Yet the digital device at the heart of the movie, the trick that makes these cats cats—their fur—does look impressively real. Indeed, by the same token, it looks insane. Call it the canny valley: we are looking at the shapes of naked human bodies covered over in the textures of cat bodies, and also with human hands and feet and bobbing cat tails.

This unearthly tension between reality and irreality is exacerbated by the setting. Saturated neon London alleys, well-appointed Soho townhouses, abandoned theaters, and dripping milk bars all suggest that the cats live in the same London as Alex DeLarge does in A Clockwork Orange. The result is that the heartfelt yearning and innocent squareness of the songs plays against the lurid and unsettling sexuality of Stanley Kubrick’s imagination, all of it embodied in the uncomfortable, writhing forms of cat people, or, in one sublimely grotesque moment, a brigade of marching cockroaches with women’s faces.

As the plotless spectacle drags on, disbelief at its oddness gives way to boredom and, at least at the screenings I attended, real-time conversation. In this respect, Cats is fitting for the Internet era as its emptiness accommodates the compulsive need to play with our phones at all times. Boisterous audiences are tweeting, instagramming, and otherwise sharing snippets of the film and, more importantly, the atmosphere of good-humored incredulity.

Seen from this remove, certain moments rise to the surface, worthy of excerpting for the Internet. No sooner are the lady-roaches introduced than Rebel Wilson’s jolly Jennyanydots unzips and sheds her skin to reveal a bedazzled pink vest, on top of still more fur. On occasion, Macavity will vanish into thin air, accompanied by a hearty “Meow!” In one inexplicably long take, Francesca Hayward, the ballerina playing the ingénue white cat Victoria, holds her foot high in the air, inches from Rum-Tum-Tugger’s (Jason Derulo) face; for five seconds we are teased with the question of whether he will put it in his mouth. This mode of enjoyment is not quite camp, which typically results from the folly of overreaching, because the ambition of the movie (cats) is actually quite modest. But there is something stunning about the scale of the catastrophe on screen, given the slightness of its source material.

Alas, we must live not with the cats we want but with the cats we have. In this single regard, Cats manages to evoke cats. It stubbornly refuses to behave, to conform to what is asked of it, preferring to spend long stretches alienating the audience, only to return every now and then to demand affection. Periodically, through the scrim of digital tinkering, some life will emerge. What a relief to see the tangibly material red pants and tap shoes of Skimbleshanks, the Railway Cat (Steven McRae), whose dancing must have proved too fast for computer animators to believably replicate. Instead, McRae’s very human legs are allowed, for a moment, to carry the show.

Universal Studios/The Really Useful Group Ltd./Perfect Universe Investment Inc.
Ian McKellen as Gus in Hooper’s Cats, 2019

Jennifer Hudson, otherwise overdirected to emote as wetly as possible, rises to the occasion for the climax of the perfectly bathetic “Memory,” pleading, with the desperate verve innate to high camp, “Touch me / it’s so easy to leave me.” And Ian McKellen, summoning a lifetime of dignity, brought a chatty screening to silence as he told the tale of Gus the Theater Cat, an aging actor reminiscing about his salad days. Wearing a tattered overcoat, his is one of the few bodies mostly unmarred by the specter of motion capture, and with just his shoulders, hands, and eyes McKellen is able to convey the weight of years and the spry energy of an old man with a few last tricks up his sleeve. He stands on a bare stage, commanding long takes free of postproduction effects. His song ends on a wistful note, reflecting on what had been Gus’s most celebrated role and wondering if there is still room for the humble actor on the modern stage:

Well, the theater is certainly not what it was
These modern productions are all very well
But there’s nothing to equal from what I hear tell
That moment of mystery when I made history
As Firefrorefiddle, the Fiend of the Fell.

This might make a fitting epitaph for Cats, preoccupied as it is with the machine-assisted modernity of its production—except that Cats is not very well at all.

There is enough blame to go around for the failures of this mutant fiasco that tried to sew the limbs of the Avengers onto the corpse of a goofy nonsense musical. And while there are, in fact, talented performers capable of conjuring mystery on the contemporary stage—some of them are in Cats—it is unlikely that the lesson producers will draw from Hooper’s movie is that they should have let the actors take center stage instead of the effects. Too much money can be made by farming film labor out to postproduction houses for CGI to take the fall. Studios will extract the investment they made in digital fur technology and soon enough we will have a Hamilton movie where Alexander Hamilton’s ten-dollar-bill portrait is stretched across Timothée Chalamet’s face. It will make for a very viral meme.