An Anagram of Toilets
'The Core Team are waiting for you to review the Cats movie,' announced the Post Editor, in his usual off-hand manner.
'Cor!' I said, but then: 'Me? How?'
'We don't mind you crow-barring in bad puns, or stealing other people's lines. Just don't do it at the same time, please. Anyway, they are sure it will be interesting.'
Crikey, you feel the pressure at moments like these: the characters in the film are all queueing up for their moment in the spotlight, and in rather the same way the great and the good of criticdom all seem to be competing to deliver the most crushing dismissal of Tom Hooper's movie. 'Battlefield Earth with whiskers,' was the coup de grace of one assessment; 'a dreadful hairball of woe' was another; 'it's just not finished' was the despairing cry of a third professional viewer - one of a number of critics who made comments to the effect that there are some sights the human eye simply should not see, and Cats may well be one of them. How am I supposed to compete with that kind of thing? Of course, it is never a good look to spend one's time feeling sorry for oneself - the charitable thing to do is to spend one's time feeling sorry for Cats.
Things look about as bad as bad can be for Cats, as the story has become not that there is a new big-budget movie musical, but that there is a new big-budget movie musical which is really terrible. That said, the film hasn't exactly helped itself - Robert Wise always used to say that no movie in history ever came as close to not being ready in time for its release than Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but I think that record has been broken. Three days into its release, a new version of the movie is replacing the one that was initially distributed, in an attempt to address issues with the special effects. Various comments including words like 'sticking plaster', 'on', and 'a shark bite' do creep into my mind, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.
The movie is set in a garish 50s version of London, from which people seem essentially absent, leaving the streets populated by bizarre human-animal hybrids (mostly cat-people, as you might expect from the title). A hideous tinny clanging presages the onset of the music, which honestly does sound out of tune in places, and we get the opening number, entitled 'Jellicle songs for jellicle cats'. The lyrics of the song seem to largely consist of the word 'jellicle', which seems to me to be a bit of a cheat as TS Eliot (author of the book of light verse which has gone through various transformations before reaching the screen in this unlikely form) made it up: it doesn't really seem to mean anything, but it seems to be a useful all-purpose lyrical filler even though there aren't many obvious rhymes for it ('petrochemical', maybe, and 'Ecumenical'; one might even suggest 'genital', but all of the cats in the film have had theirs digitally erased).
Well, anyway. By this point we have met the main character (or as close as the film gets), Victoria Cat (Francesca Hayward) and a bunch of other cats. Following a quick rendition of Eliot's 'The Naming of Cats' (performed without music and possibly the best bit of the film), the nature of the thing heaves into view: it's a special night for the cats, as their matriarch Old Deuteronomy Cat (Judi Dench) will be listening to them all sing songs about their lives, with the cat she names the winner being sent off to the Heaviside Layer (the E region of the ionosphere, long used to reflect MW radio transmissions) to be reincarnated. There is something very English and drolly quirky about this, which apparently was derived from Eliot's writing, but it is still mostly gibberish.
What it basically does is facilitate a structure where a bunch of different cats come on and sing one song each about themselves, in a number of different styles (there aren't many musical references more up to date than the late 1970s, which is when these songs were written). In technical terms, it's all 'I Am' and not much 'I Want'; what plot there is concerns a scheme by Macavity Cat (Idris Elba), an evil cat with magical powers, to rig the competition for his own benefit. So, basically, it goes: Song about a cat. Song about a cat. Song about a cat. Song about a cat. The songs don't really refer to each other, nor do they tell a story; this is why turning collections of poetry into musicals is one of the more niche creative disciplines.
Whatever the problems are with the narrative structure the film has inherited from the musical, they are nothing compared to the consequences of the sheer visual impact of the thing. You can kind of see why they've got themselves into such a mess here, but the fact remains that the fatal problem with the film is that it does not appreciate the difference between presentational and representational modes of performance, particularly when it comes to cinematic and theatrical contexts. (And, yes, I did write that myself.) Or, to put it another way, in a stage show with a live audience, someone coming on dressed as a cat can be a magical and moving experience. However, Rebel Wilson with cat ears CGI'd onto her head, eating CGI cockroach people, is simply the stuff of nightmares. The characters in this film are obviously not cats. But neither are they people. So what are they? It's just all kinds of freaky, and not a little confusing. Faced with Victoria Cat, I wasn't sure whether to give her a piece of fish, or - well, look, I'm not a cat person, but if they all looked as Francesca Hayward does here, I could well be persuaded.
Cats is such a thoroughly weird experience that for a long time I was genuinely unsure if this is a bad movie or not. As a sort of surreal, hallucinogenic Arabesque fantasy, it has a certain kind of colour and energy, and the cast do seem to be trying hard. In the end it does largely boil down to extremely peculiar stagings of light verse put to music, though. It is telling that 'Memory', the big show-stopper of Cats, is only very loosely drawn from TS Eliot, and is not from the same source as most of the rest of the songs. Under optimal conditions it is a very pleasant and possibly even affecting little number - here, however, it is given to Jennifer Hudson, who gives it maximum Streep and maximum volume. The results made me want to hide under my seat, I'm afraid.
In the end I am going to stick with my gut instinct and agree with the consensus: Cats is a very bad movie, not because it is poorly made, but because it is fundamentally flawed in its conception. I can imagine that a fully animated version of the show might have done reasonably well, and almost certainly wouldn't have attracted such eviscerating notices. You can certainly admire the skill, talent and nerve that has clearly gone into making such a bold and unusual film. But the film itself is a freakish mutant, and only really worth seeing because things so remarkably misconceived so rarely make it into cinemas.