By John H. Foote
Call it a CAT-astrophe, CAT-astrophic, kitty litter, a hair ball, find anything derogatory to say about the feline species and it will work in describing Cats, the colossal box office and critical disaster from last year. Universal has stated they have lost $170 million dollars on the film, which played to empty houses, and snickers of laughter from anyone who saw it. And it deserved each bad review it received, as it is terrible. Who had the idea of asking the great actor Sir Ian McKellan to lap milk from a saucer?? Is it not degrading enough for him to be outfitted like a cat for this hellish movie?
When Sherri was ill, and Aurora away at school, Ariana was never asked (?), it fell on me to clean the litter box we had in the house for the cats. With five cats, three of them able to go outdoors, it made for a full box by days end. Grabbing a garbage bag each day and my scoop, armed with fresh littler I attacked the box with a vengeance, hoping it would all be over fast, as the stench filled by nostrils, and it was certainly not pretty to look at.
I felt exactly, and I mean EXACTLY the same way enduring the movie Cats, released last December to some of the most savage reviews in movie history, and every single one of them richly deserved. Adapted from the long running Broadway musical by Andrew Lloyd Weber, one of the most unusual works to be staged anywhere in the world, beloved by audiences around the world, a film has been in the works for more than two decades. At one point it was considered the only way to do the picture would be animation, and in hindsight I am betting the creators wish they had gone that route.
Director Tom Hooper, an Oscar winner for The King’s Speech (2010) and director of the musical Les Misérables (2012), directed Cats, and though he has learned about the language of the cinema since Les Misérables, did he know he was guiding a catastrophe? Did he realize some of the greatest actors on the planet, Dame Judi Dench, Sir Ian McKellan and Idris Elba would be humiliated by their work in the film? That Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson would hang her head in shame? That pop star Taylor Swift would distance herself from the film? Could they not realize it was not working??
The film is really just a series of introductions to the local cat population as they await the arrival of Old Deuteronomy, an ancient cat who bestows on a single cat each year the gift of another life. Each introduction comes with a song and dance, as the cat explains their name and their actions. Dumped in a bag by her owners, wide eyed innocent Victoria (Francesca Hayward) is introduced to each cat, some taking her in as a friend at once, while others keeping her at a distance, stand offish as cats tend to be.
What the hell is a jellicle cat??
The names are entertaining if nothing else. Macavity (Idris Elba), Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson), Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo), Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson), Bustofer Jones (James Corden), Gus the Theatre Cat (Ian McKellan), Bombalurina (Taylor Swift) and Shimbleshanks the Railway Cat (Steven McRae) make up just some of the population.
And as bad as it is, and make no mistake this is a terrible film, there are glimpses of blazing talent from the actors.
Francesca Hayward as Victoria is an astonishing, gifted dancer who moves gracefully and with purpose. Her limbs telling the story the writers clearly cannot. Ballet, jazz, tap, hip hop and acrobatics, this girl can do it all and does, what a talent!! Her wide-eyed expression of wonder is a beautiful thing to behold, her body clearly her instrument and a thing of beauty. She is a major new talent and one to watch. Oh that she had chosen a different vehicle to showcase her immense gifts. Watching her is like beholding a miracle of dance, understanding at once why dance is among the more breathtaking art forms. In the hands of a gifted dancer, no words are needed, the entire story can be told with great emotion by a dancer and their body.
Idris Elba is mysterious and sinister as the entitled, greedy Macavity, Ian McKellan steals the film a forlorn Gus the Theatre Cat, his greatest roles now behind him, talking forever about what was.
Yet it very quickly becomes redundant, the same old same old, song after song, introduction after introduction, each cat having a different personality acted out by the actor/ dancer/ singer, but even with each one being different, it grew…tiresome. Is that even the right word to describe this kind of hell? Each new cat is given a lavish production number and I cannot remember a musical that bored me so quickly.
Look there have been terrible big budget films released before, The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), St. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978), 1941 (1979), Raise the Titanic (1980), Can’t Stop the Music (1980), Xanadu (1981) and Battlefield Earth (2000) and there will be many more, but this is a new kind of bad, a new measuring stick. No one ever sets out to make a terrible film, these people are all creative artists hoping for the best in their work, and a great deal of effort and money goes into making a film like Cats. The computer work was substantial, even filling out Taylor Swifts’ skinny legs to be more shapely, and though she remains quite lovely, is the body hers we wonder? Yes, the tails move (a distraction) and the ears move, but we did not need these things on stage because we believed the actors. They moved like cats, and that was enough to suspend our disbelief. We simply do not need all the trappings in the film. Way too much folks. And why do some of the cats go barefoot (human feet) while others wear tap shoes, or dance shoes? As I mentioned previously Hooper, who directed Les Misérables (2012) with far too many close ups, has learned a bit about the language of the cinema and indeed uses long shots here to emphasize the size of the world around the cats, and to pull back to explore the isolation of the cats. That was good to see, an Academy Award winning filmmaker willing to learn from his grievous mistakes. I hope he learns from this one, if he can get work again, because after hacking up a hairball like this, producers might be loath to work with him again.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.