The critics seem to agree. Tom Hooper’s CATS is a disaster, and it is bombing spectacularly at the box office. It is set to lose tens of millions of dollars and will surely never recoup its 100 million dollar budget.
I’ve seen the stage version of CATS once. It was in London’s West End many cat lives ago. I was in college. I was an English major. I had studied T.S. Elliot as any good English major would, and I was curious about his cat poems published as Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. I made sure to buy myself a copy when in London, and I made sure to go see CATS.
I wasn’t even much of a theater geek at the time, but I loved the musical. It didn’t have much of a plot. Just a loose look at different kinds of cats from TS Elliot’s mind and Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical imagination. When those sleek clothed cats started dancing to that infectious beat of Jellicle Cats kicked in, I was hooked.
So when I saw Hooper (whom I respected greatly for Les Miserables movie and The King’s Speech) was bringing CATS to the big screen, I couldn’t wait to see it.
I had read some of the reviews before going. A certain NY Times columnist spouted some weird thoughts about how the “Milk Bar scene” was like cat porn. Others used the word “disturbing” — commenting on the weird fur. One complained how Jennifer Hudson kept “crying from her nose.” Reading the reviews for CATS was kind of entertaining in itself. I just couldn’t figure out how Hooper had messed it up so badly. I had to see it for myself.
And you know what? I loved it.
Hooper gets it. These critics can’t get over themselves enough to let the music take them away and relieve a truly ground-breaking musical. When the song Jellicle Cats started, I was captivated once again. And while it’s not a perfect movie, it recaptures all the emotions and joy, yes, joy, that I felt in the West End that evening a long time ago. So let me break this down into a few strengths and weaknesses of the show.
- The music is fantastic. I found myself tapping my foot, looking on in wonder, and enjoying most all of the numbers.
- Francesca Hayward. She played Victoria, a cat without friends who finds herself caught up with the Jellicle cats on the night of their annual ball. Hayward weaved the loose story together with her subtle expressions, fresh face, beautiful dancing, and lovely singing. Her performance itself is worth the price of admission.
- Tap dancing. I so enjoyed the tap dancing of Skimbleshanks, the mail train cat, and the inventive way Hooper brought the entire scene together.
- Hooper, himself. He’s been much maligned with this film, but he uses the set and music to recreate the world of the Jellicles in a vivid and lively manner. I found myself anticipating the next songs and wondering how the spectacle would be able to keep upstaging itself. It did.
- The cast. It is an extremely talented cast which, once again, brings the music to life. I was singing it on the way home. Heck, I’m still singing it.
Let me tackle a few weaknesses of the show before I surmise what went wrong.
- CGI. Hooper admitted it wasn’t ready. I went to the show with my daughter who noticed that the dancers feet kept disappearing and reappearing, making some of the scenes take a back seat to the bad graphics. Supposedly, the film has been patched which takes care of a lot of those problems, but that is a sloppy problem to have for an expensive film.
- Gumbie Cat. If any scene was disturbing, it was this one with dancing cockroaches which Gumbie cat would toss into her mouth. It was all a little grotesque. I didn’t exactly appreciate Hooper’s choices in this scene.
- James Corden’s overacting. He was a little over-the-top in his scenes. I would have preferred a scaled back version of raiding the garbage cans.
So the remaining question is this: Why was it panned so badly?
The only thing that makes sense to me is expectations. I saw the musical, so I knew what to expect. I knew it would be light on plot, big on spectacle, and really big on Weber’s pop-rock music. Hooper delivered on these three, which made it work for me, but I’m a sucker for musicals. If someone walked into the cinema thinking they were going to be watching a cute, heartwarming story about cats, well, then I guess they might have been dumbfounded by what they saw. Make no mistake about it: Hooper created a piece of theatre. He just happened to put it on film, and in my estimation, it lived up to the musical. I recommend it if you are willing to suspend your disbelief and just enjoy a night at the theatre, in the cinema. I look forward to seeing it again. Although I might just fast-forward through Rebel Wilson’s scene.