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Cats (2019)

“Cats” opened on London’s West End in 1981 and proceeded to run for 21 years straight. The show came to Broadway in 1982 and ran for 18 years. The Hamburg show opened in 1986 and and ran for 15 years. The Japanese iteration opened in 1983 and it’s still going strong. The Vienna production opened in 1983 and ran for seven years, before it was revived just a few months ago.

The show has been performed all around the globe, and every iteration has either done well or done supremely well. To this day, it’s still one of the longest-running shows in the prestigious respective histories of Broadway and West End. “Cats” has never bombed.

Until now.

After two decades in development, Cats (2019) was finally released in time for Christmas 2019. Given the promos, the release date, and the caliber of talent involved, the film was obviously being positioned as an awards contender. Yes, the film shared a release date with the Star Wars juggernaut, but this could make a nice bit of counter-programming for kids, women, musical enthusiasts, etc. Sure, Frozen II already had that lane covered, but that movie has to be running out of steam after a month in theaters, right?

Just this past weekend, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker made over $177 million domestic. Frozen II came in at just under $13 million domestic.

What did Cats (2019) make in its opening weekend? $6.6 million domestic. As of this writing, it’s made $12 million worldwide. On a reported budget of $95 million, that puts it on track to rank among the biggest box office bombs of all time.

You might think there’s a chance for the box office returns to tick back up. That’s not happening. The only way that ever happens is if a film suddenly goes from limited release to wide release. (One example is Bombshell, another female-oriented awards vehicle that Cats opened opposite, and only barely outgrossed.) Next weekend brings a cadre of critically lauded heavyweight awards contenders with the high-budget 1917 and the female-driven Little Women (2019), in addition to Uncut Gems for the more hardcore cinephiles and Spies in Disguise for the kiddie set. Against that kind of competition, plus the movies that Cats is already losing to, its box office take is only going down and quickly.

Yes, there’s still a degree of hope. There’s still a chance that the Academy voters might take the bait and give it a bump. Even then, that depends on Cats still hanging around in theaters by late January, and it’ll still have to compete with the other campaigning films. Easily the best chance it has is to pull a Greatest Showman and find its cult following in spite of the underwhelming big screen run.

So how did we get here?

Well, let’s start with the expenses. This is a show that cost the equivalent of $1.6 million (more like $5.3 million, adjusted for inflation) when it was first staged in West End. How and why did the film adaptation cost anywhere near $100 million?

On the one hand, this is one of the most beloved and successful stage musicals of all time. That merits a film to chase tons of Oscar gold, a film adaptation worthy of the show and its fans, and a film to rope in moviegoers who’ve never seen the musical (Broadway tickets are expensive, y’all). Of course it’s going to attract such a wide range of talent as Jennifer Hudson, Judi Dench, Idris Elba, Taylor Swift, Jason DeRulo, Ian McKellen, James Corden, Rebel Wilson, and so on. Of course it needs an Oscar-winning director and the white-hot choreographer of “Hamilton”. Of course it needs all the latest and greatest in CGI and huge expansive sets.

But on the other hand… well, it’s a show about dancing cats. Moreover — I can’t possibly stress this enough — the plot to this thing barely exists. T.S. Eliot wrote the source material as a collection of silly children’s poems with no regard for connecting them through any kind of story, and his estate flatly insisted that the source material had to be adapted with every single word as is. The result is a series of disconnected scenes held together with gossamer strands of snooker-loopy mythology that could only work under the most generous of fever-dream suspended logic.

The upside to this is that the poems were set to music composed by Grandmasters Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice at the respective peaks of their careers. What’s more, the script and premise had A LOT of blank spaces to play in. With regards to the sets, the dancing, the costumes, and pretty much everything else in terms of presentation, anything goes.

This is one of the crucial differences between cinema and live theatre. By its very nature, live theatre is more abstract. Strictly speaking, a live theatre show doesn’t even need so many elaborate costumes and effects — you could just have one person pantomiming everything on an empty stage and your audience will fill in the blanks without even asking. Try that in a movie and see where it gets you. Seriously, just try adapting Samuel Beckett or Eugene Ionesco into a coherent film, I dare you.

In general, movies are far more concrete. Without any kind of direct real-time audience interaction, the filmmakers are expected to take complete control over everything within the frame. What you see is what you get, and this is especially true of awards contenders. While there are some minor exceptions (Moonlight is probably the best recent example), Oscar vehicles typically veer away from the abstract because their primary goal is to show the strength of the filmmakers. Awards candidates aren’t made or rewarded for audience interaction or interpretation, they’re made and rewarded for Best Production Design, Best Visual Effects, Best Costume Design, and so on. You’re not going to win Best Original (or Adapted) Screenplay for a film with a non-existent plot, that’s all there is to it.

Put another way: Cirque du Soleil is a wildly successful company that’s been producing live stage shows for the past 35 years. There are multiple reasons why none of their shows have ever been adapted to film, and if any such adaptation could be made into an awards contender, you bet your ass somebody would’ve tried by now.

The point being that Hollywood — as with a tragic multitude of adaptations — saw something immensely successful and never stopped to think that it maybe it became successful because it worked so well in that particular medium. Maybe “Cats” worked so well as a stage musical precisely because it is in fact a stage musical! Maybe this dramatized series of children’s poems never needed a $100 million budget or A-list stars. Maybe it never needed to be rendered with CGI and projected onto a 50-foot screen.

Again, it’s just people singing and dancing around in cat costumes. Maybe it’s best if we kept this simple. And if we did that, we wouldn’t have a woefully misguided and overblown flop on our hands. Yet here we are.

First thing’s first: Tom Hooper doesn’t know how to direct movie musicals. This should have been firmly established after he botched Les Mis. He’s obsessed with close-ups and extreme close-up shots to the point where nothing but the actors’ faces can register. He doesn’t know the first thing about shot composition or editing.

Pro tip: This is how you edit a film to music. If you watch that clip very carefully, you’ll notice that every cut happens on the beat. It’s a subtle touch, but the visuals and the music have to flow to the exact same beat. That’s how the visuals and the music work together. Compare that to this movie, in which the huge group dance numbers are slapped together with no consistency or apparent method. This is most especially obvious at the Jellicle Ball number halfway through — Andy Blankenbuehler is a wonderful talent and I’m sure his choreography is phenomenal, but it barely makes a difference when the editing won’t sit still and shots are getting spliced in from all over the place!

Which brings me to the CGI. You may be relieved to know that the horror show we saw in the initial trailer was indeed a rough rendering and the VFX team used their time wisely.

(Side note: That would be MPC Vancouver, the same VFX company that won an Oscar for their work on Life of Pi before contributing to the VFX on the live-action remakes of The Jungle Book and The Lion King. This is also the company that singlehandedly saved Paramount’s asses, helping to redesign Sonic the Hedgehog when everyone and their dog took turns shitting on the trailer for the upcoming game-to-film adaptation.

(And for all that amazing work on these big-budget tentpole movies that generated Oscar gold and billions of box office dollars, MPC Vancouver shut their doors earlier this month. Nice going, Hollywood.)

I’m happy to say that the CGI is much improved to the point where it’s honestly no less creepy than the stage makeup and costumes typically associated with the live show. That said, the CGI still takes its toll on the dancing. There are so many times — most especially in the opening dance number — when the movements look choppy or floaty and nobody’s moving in a way that looks right.

To be clear, I’m talking about physics. I’m not talking about characters slinking around and moving like cats.

With regards to the cast, the filmmakers were smart enough to play to the respective strengths of each performer. Let’s run down a few examples.

  • James Corden and Rebel Wilson are comedians first and foremost, so they’re the comic relief. Which means that if you don’t like their physical, hammy, brain-dead, overwrought style of humor, this is your time to suffer. And don’t even get me started on their pathetically bad fight sequence going into the third act.
  • Judi Dench and Ian McKellen are aging actors with indomitable presence earned through decades of experience. They can’t sing or dance, but what of it? All they really need to do is be old and authoritative.
  • Jason DeRulo can’t sing without autotune, but he’s got attitude and he can dance. Perfect for Rum Tum Tugger, especially since the chorus does most of the heavy lifting in singing his big number.
  • Same deal with Steven McRae as Skimbleshanks. He can’t sing very well, but he can tap-dance like nobody’s business. So everybody else does most of the singing while McRae tap-dances to blow the doors off.
  • Laurie Davidson is an actor without much in the way of musical talent? Okay, let’s reconfigure the “Mr. Mistoffelees” number so it’s about the character rediscovering his confidence and we give him some internal drama to play with.
  • Robbie Fairchild… hell, he can do anything. Make him Munkustrap — the de facto narrator of the show could certainly use a good Jack of All Trades.
  • Jennifer Hudson has the best pipes in the cast. Let’s give her Grizabella so she can belt out the most iconic song in the show. And then let’s mix the audio so we can barely hear her over the orchestra. IDIOTS.
  • Taylor Swift was going through this whole “Bad Girl” phase at the time of production (see: her “Reputation” album in 2017), so she gets a song in which she acts all sexy and powerful while singing about the villain.

Which brings us to Idris Elba as Macavity. Again, the filmmakers were smart enough to play to his strengths, building the portrayal off of his charisma and acting talent, rather than his musical ability. That’s just about the only smart thing they did with the character, because boosting Macavity to act as the overarching villain contributes absolutely nothing and it doesn’t pay off in any way whatsoever.

What might be even worse is that in the stage show, we never see exactly how Macavity does the amazing things he does. It gave the character a sinister kind of mystique. In this film, we straight-up see Macavity teleporting himself and others, spontaneously bursting into clouds of pixie dust. Fucking WHAT?!

Last but not least, we have Francesca Hayward, a lead dancer in the Royal Ballet of London, here making her cinematic debut in the role of Victoria. She’s a cat abandoned by her owner, hitting the pavement with an audible “thump”, right when the bouncy and mystical Jellicle Theme strikes up in the opening. To repeat: Tom Hooper cannot direct movie musicals. I might even go a step further and say that he cannot direct. “Best Director” over Darren Aronofsky, David Fincher, and the Coen Brothers, my aching ass. But I digress.

Victoria is a character unique to the film, providing the audience with a viewpoint character. Good call. Of course, because she’s an original character, she doesn’t have much in the way of dialogue. Who cares? Hayward is a world-class ballerina, she doesn’t need dialogue. Her facial expressions and her dancing skills are more than good enough to get the job done.

Also, because Victoria is a totally original character, there’s no harm in giving her the film’s Best Original Song entry for the Oscars. Especially since Hayward has a perfectly lovely singing voice. Also, kudos for having the guts to put the Original Song directly into the film, as opposed to tacking it onto the end credits like we’ve seen too many times. The only problem is, it’s very clearly the only song that has no basis in the source material or the works of T.S. Eliot. It sticks out terribly as a direct result.

More importantly, because Victoria is an original character, she makes for a pathetically weak protagonist. Her development arc is limp to the point where it’s barely even finished. Aside from singing other characters’ lyrics in an encouraging way, she doesn’t do much of anything to keep the plot moving forward. Such as it is.

This is really what it comes down to: The film has a plot. The stage show doesn’t. And every time the filmmakers try to shoehorn a conventional plot into something so defiantly nonsensical, it invariably backfires. Of course changes will have to happen in the process of adaptation, but when every change makes the end product even worse in comparison to the original, there’s a sure sign that the adaptation should never have been attempted to begin with.

Cats (2019) is not the worst film I’ve seen. It’s not even the worst film I’ve seen this year. Everything that made the original stage show whimsical and fun is still in there, you just have to dig through so much shit to get to it.

The cast is uneven — some of them (most especially Francesca Hayward and Robbie Fairchild) are phenomenal, and some of them (Rebel Wilson, Idris Elba) had no business being anywhere near this picture. The direction is so incompetent that I sincerely hope this is the bomb that kills Tom Hooper’s career for good and all. But more than anything else, every painfully awkward attempt at adapting the script to cinema feels like a self-inflicted wound.

It’s not necessarily a bad film, just an ambitious and unfortunate mistake.

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