So Bad It's Good: 'Cats' (2019) - This Film is Not a Dog
When I first saw the 2019 cinematic version of Cats, I was in disbelief at what was happening on the screen. The film opens with music that sounds almost carnival like, then a cat is thrown from a car onto a curb, and what follows is a mix of possibly explicit imagery choreographed to catchy music. When I was a kid, all I knew of Cats were the advertisements that played on PBS. There would be these stark cat eyes, followed by clips of the stage show, drastic colorful makeup and bodysuits, and the song “Memory.” The song “Memory” in particular, I remember being parodied and used in several shows. I had pretty high expectations for the film version of Cats, knowing it was the fourth-longest running Broadway show as of 2019. But what I was seeing in front of me gave me a “something about this recipe doesn’t work” feeling, so I did everything I could to figure out what that “something” was. The more I dug, the more I came to admire the accomplishment that this film was. Looking at the film’s production, to the actors chosen for their roles, to how close it was of an adaptation of the original, everything about this film was not only fascinating, but it may be the greatest cinematic wonder of 2019.
This was Tom Hooper’s second musical film behind Les Misérables. Using the same directing style as he did on Les Misérables, all the performances were done live on set, which means the actors are both performing high-level choreography at times involving wire work while also hitting high notes and musical beats. In order to give more of a cat-like sense of movement, Hooper sent the actors to weeks of cat movement school. There they learned how to not only move like cats but to interact better with the sets and props, which brings us to another interesting point. Most of the sets and props for this film are practical. If you watch the “making of” specials in the home release of this film, The Milk Bar, the Alley, those leaves, gold rings, among other set pieces were constructed on a soundstage in England in order to make the actors appear in a “2.5 scale” compared to an actual cat. This would make Cats one of the rare films where the environments are practical, but every actor’s costume was entirely digital.
In order to digitally recreate the dramatic suits from the stage show, the costumes were full-body computer-generated renders of the actors. Tom Hooper had initially used prosthetics on the actors to get the look of the cats from the stage show, but was unhappy with how unemotional the prosthetics made the portrayals feel on film, so he opted for a computer-generated alternative. The video effects animators were MPC Vancouver, a production company with previous work that includes the Star Wars films and the re-edit of the Sonic the Hedgehog. The team was given strict timelines which they incredibly met. To give you an idea of the timelines, it took six months to create the visuals in the film’s initial 2-minute trailer. For the entire 110-minute theatrical cut, the team was only given four months. Animators worked 80- to 90-hour weeks, most of the time sleeping under their desks, just to meet directorial demands. The final edit was completed within hours of the film’s premiere in order to meet a “holiday season” release. News that the film had been pulled after the first week in theaters while a more complete cut was redistributed, makes sense. The worst part, MPC Vancouver ended up closing and many of those animators were laid off shortly after the film’s release. A lot of people point to the visual effects as the film’s weak point but knowing the constraints, it’s an interesting cinematic accomplishment.
One aspect of this film people can agree was done correctly was the casting. You have a “Dame” (Dame Judy Dench), a “Sir” (Sir Ian McKellan), three multiplatinum recording artists (Taylor Swift, Jason Derulo, and Jennifer Hudson), two principal dancers from Britain’s Royal Ballet (Francesca Hayward and Steven McRae), one of the most-watched late night hosts (James Corden), 2018's People Magazine “Sexiest Man Alive” (Idris Elba), one Australia’s most in-demand comedians (Rebel Wilson), and the Les Twins. I’m sure no cast gathered in 2019 can equal the amount of talent this one brought to the table. Particularly impressive in her debut role is the performance from Francesca Hayward, who played Victoria. In the original production, Victoria is strictly a dancing role with no lines or singing. In 2019's Cats, not only does she dazzle in her movements, her rendition of “Beautiful Ghosts” (which was written by Taylor Swift and Andrew Lloyd Weber for this film) was moving and arguably better than the version recorded by Swift for the soundtrack. Two other performances that stood out were Judy Dench and Jennifer Hudson. Judy Dench was slated to play Grizabella in the original 1981 production, but tore her Achilles tendon during rehearsals and had to be pulled from the role. In a sense, this was redemption for Dench and she really draws your attention when she’s on screen. Hudson, on the other hand, sings a rendition of “Memory” that stands out as arguably the best highlight of the film and soundtrack, and knowing it was performed live makes it that much more special.
If there was anything to blame for why the “2019 Golden Raspberry: Worst Picture” is so lauded, it’s how close of an adaption to the original material the film is. Cats is a dark story of an abandoned cat trying to acclimate herself to a tribe of “Jellicle” cats (“dear little cats”) who are competing for the right to die and pass on to the “Heavyside Layer.” The movie is a very faithful adaption to Sir Andrew Lloyd Weber’s original work. Having now also seen the 1998 Broadway recording on Amazon Prime, the stage version was a pure musical. There were no lines allowing for smooth transitions or explanatory moments. The show literally jumped from song to song with the overture playing between beats. I much prefer the film version of Cats over the original stage version. If anything, Cats is a story that probably shouldn’t have been adapted to film, but this version is probably the best we’ll see in terms of live action.
Overall, the production of this film is incredible. It’s a cast of a caliber we’ll probably never see again, it’s a real feat of video effects programming, and knowing the reception and where this film ends up in the pantheon of movies, the “making of” features on the home video release are like watching a good horror movie, reminiscent of the happy scenes at a summer camp before the killer goes out and has his way with the campers. If there was anything I would recommend as being must see about this film, outside of Jennifer Hudson’s rendition of “Memory,” it would be the “making of” features for this film. With the facts I just gave explaining why I love this film, it’s fun to just re-watch this movie knowing a lot of those sets and props actually exist, those songs were performed live on set, and those are some of the world’s best performers doing the “best” they can with these roles, be it tap dancing, arabesque ballet movements, or letting their voice flow in a show-stopping rendition of a memorable song.
There’s nothing else to say about this movie other than: This film is not a dog.