By John H. Foote
When my wife was pregnant and again when having chemotherapy for the brain cancer that took her from us, it was my job to clean the litter boxes for the cats. Cat urine has an ammonia smell if left too long, and the poop stinks dreadfully. I cleaned them every day and no one ever knew we had six of the varmints roaming the house. Watching the film Cats made that job seem like a pleasure.
Francesca Hayward was lovely in Cats, a gifted dancer, a lovely presence on film, with stunning eyes that drew the viewer close to her. She was the only saving grace in this movie hair ball coughed up by Oscar winning director Tom Hooper, now judged as one of the worst films ever to grace the silver screen. In fact, this might be the new low bar for how films are measured, though for me, Exorcist II – The Heretic (1977) will always be the worst of the worst. Cats sits dangerously close.
It as though Hooper stood back and threw metaphorical kitty litter on the screen, it is that bad. The makers should have made an animated film, or better yet not made the film at all! As a stage production, Cats was an extraordinary smash hit, the musical numbers performed with grace and energy by casts around the globe. A good friend of mine from theatre school, Lorena McKenzie, was part of the original Toronto cast and has been involved with various productions of Cats ever since. Even Lorena, who so loves Cats, thought they blew the film version. Like me, she enjoyed Hayward, but not much else.
Hooper attempted an all-star cast in difficult cat make up, hoping that might work. Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls) was cast as Grizabella, the great Ian McKellen was Gus the Theatre Cat, Idris Elba was Macavity, Oscar-winner Judi Dench was cast as Old Deuteronomy, and pop star Taylor Swift, and Revel Wilson also found their way into the film in key roles. Despite this impressive roster, ballet star Francesca Hayward is still the brightest light in the film.
Andrew Lloyd Webber famously put T.S. Elliot’s poem about cats to music, and the Broadway world went mad for it. Webber of course famously created Jesus Christ Superstar, The Phantom of the Opera, and Sunset Boulevard among others, but Cats remains his most famous work. I thought The Phantom of the Opera looked like cinematic art next to Cats if that’s any indication of my loathing.
What the hell is a jellicle cat? That word, jellicle, is repeated more than four dozen times in this mess and by the end of the film I was ready to cough up a hair ball from deep in my belly. Watching Ian McKellen lap milk out of a saucer was humiliating for one of the greatest actors in the world. Rebel Wilson was downright awful, Idris Elba was consistently in a foul mood but not the least bit threatening. Taylor Swift was not terrible, but James Corden certainly was.
The big number in the film, “MemoreYy” is sung by Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson and her singing will give you chills, but her performance, not so much. She looks terrific as Grizabella, the so-called Glamour cat, beaten down by life, raggedy and messy. She is the natural choice to be taken away by Old Deuteronomy to another life. Francesca Hayward sings portions of the song too and has a lovely voice but is not the powerhouse Hudson is. It is the high point of the film, as everyone knew it would be, but it does not save the movie by any measure.
What was Tom Hooper thinking? His direction of Les Misérables (2011) had problems but was not the unmitigated disaster this is. In fact, some of Les Misérables was deeply moving, particularly the performances of Anne Hathaway and Samantha Banks, stunning both. Though heavily criticized, I though Russell Crowe was fine as Javert, and though Hugh Jackman was treated as the second coming of Christ for his performance, he was just OK. What I found interesting was that some of the set pieces and production design for Les Misérables shows up in Cats! Items such statues looked familiar. Am I being too picky? That, I am afraid, is my job.
Tom Hooper won an Academy Award for his first film, The King’s Speech (2010), which should have gone to David Fincher and The Social Network (2010). That was a film for the ages, whereas today, 10 years after The King’s Speech, it is all but forgotten. Tasked with Les Misérables, he did a fine job, the greatest flaw being far too many close ups, and not a shred of understanding about the language of the cinema.
Cats has already been forgotten except as a punchline, and I think everyone in Hollywood concedes an animated film would have worked far better. I would suggest a re-make called Cats Have Nine Lives, but sadly the film was so bad it might have used all nine.
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.