'Cats' review: Not that bad

With pained nostalgia, Gus (Ian McKellen) sings phrases aching with a longing for what was:

“Well the theatre is certainly not what it was.

These modern productions, they’re all very well

But there’s nothing equal from what I hear tell

That moment of mystery when I made history.”

Hollywood cinema tricks

Of course, Gus was singing of his once glorious career as a theater cat but if Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Cats could sing, it would’ve probably sung the same words.

The musical is legendary, having played to adoring theater-goers in London and New York City for decades. Adapted from T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, a collection of frivolous rhymes made by the poet for his godchildren, Cats is more a stage-bound spectacle than a work of fine theater.

While the songs and melodies composed by Weber are indubitably delightful, the play is more of a pageant of stunts and acrobatics, with thespians dressed in furry tights performing numbers that subscribe to a feline’s ability to be both graceful and nimble.

Tom Hooper’s film replaces the spectacle with all the tricks Hollywood cinema has to offer.

The costumes are melded with visual effects, making the actors and actresses look less like people playing cats and more like furry mutants out of a superhero flick. The production design is immaculate, or perhaps too immaculate that it filters the very essential element of child-like creativity and make-believe from the silly song-and-dance revue. The musical’s littered with big names too, with the likes of Rebel Wilson, Jason Derulo, and James Corden blending their famed personalities into the characters they are playing.

Hooper’s Cats is defiantly cinematic, and there lies the problem.

Taylor Swift

Indispensable stagecraft

Indispensable to the charm of Cats is the stagecraft. 

Once the work teeters too closely to reality, it exposes itself as just preposterous. It loses its wonder, its closeness to the intention to bring its viewers to that point of their lives when they were willing to believe everything. Hooper’s decision to rely heavily on skin-deep cinema, on the quick cuts, the fancy cinematography, and the computer-generated visual splendor, is the film’s ultimate undoing.

In a way, the awe and magic were lost in translation, turning Weber’s musical into something closer to a failed experiment rather than a celebration of the storied legacy of the work.

There are shining moments, of course, as well as improvements.

Hooper’s Cats is more narratively logical, if that makes sense considering that the story of both the play and the film centers on cats deciding who amongst them will be chosen to be reborn. The play uses the flimsy story to frame various songs about various felines, jumping from one number about a domesticated pussy making friends with mice and roaches to a showstopper about a rocker tabby who is popular with the ladies.

The movie, on the other hand, sprinkles a few more details to tie things together, even introducing a new feline named Victoria (Francesca Hayward) who becomes the viewers’ eyes and ears to the bizarre ritual of cats performing as if in a talent competition. 

The push for a more recognizable narrative seems to be a bid for Hooper to inject the work with some more emotional resonance. There is definitely more sentiment in a sequence where Memory, the song that represents the plight of outcast cat Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson), is immediately followed by "Beautiful Ghosts," a newly composed song that has Victoria airing her emotions about having absolutely no memory of a former glamour. 

Jennifer Hudson

Get past the anomalies

Clearly, Hooper’s film, while riddled with glaringly awful mistakes, is not bad at all. 

It just takes a while to get past its very many anomalies. – Rappler.com

 

Francis Joseph Cruz litigates for a living and writes about cinema for fun. The first Filipino movie he saw in the theaters was Carlo J. Caparas' Tirad Pass.

Since then, he's been on a mission to find better memories with Philippine cinema.