Cats is going to have even less fans than the musical.

Absent hyperbole the most overrated musical theatre production of all time, the bastardisation of T. S. Eliot’s not indecent poetry into an overly feckless, plotless, pointless two hours has emerged as a key 20th and now 21st century crux of cultural division in no small measure due to its bizarrely ever-sustaining popularity.

The musical is well known for its annoying compositions, lack of sustained dramatic tension and myriad of singularly-dimensional characters. Moreover, its self-serving, insular aggrandisement as something beyond a variety show (not a pejorative term) rendered it greatly less endearing than it otherwise could have been had it not so masqueraded – that’s one for the real ALW fans.

We are not here however to talk about the Musical, but the film; the former being relevant insofar as Director Tom Hooper has mounted an uncommonly faithful recreation as regards the lyrical bona fides and ‘story’ composition. If you’re not a fan of the Musical, even a casual one, there’s nothing for you here. If you are a fan, you may still want to stay clear.

One final comment on the stage production to the extent that the show is relevant to this adaptation; for all the faults, what Andrew Lloyd Webber more greatly popularised was a type of spectacle encompassing much more of the stage and theatre than is commonly utilised. In a sense a physical and interactive treat for fans, the styling of which is now relatively commonplace throughout musical theatre (think the animals marching down the aisles in The Lion King), that which did make the Musical memorable too illuminates what is so lacking on screen.

As much as it may seem like it, this is not a sarcastic review (there will be no shortage of those); just a very bad one. This author will in fairness say what was pleasing to the eye, and ear, and what this is ostensibly all about, before proceeding to all else.

Set in London, Victoria (Francesca Hayward, a Principal dancer at the London Royal Ballet), a newly stray cat, encounters any number of felines including the ‘Jellicle Cats’ (‘Dear Little Cats’) who proceed to sing about each of their lives and an imminent ascension of sorts for one chosen cat. It also stars Dame Judi Dench (very disturbingly wearing a fur coat), Sir Ian McKellen, Idris Elba, Rebel Wilson, James Corden, Ray Winstone, Jennifer Hudson, Jason Derulo and Taylor Swift.

Importantly, unlike the stage show (which also deploys larger than life sets relative to the size of the cats) these are not actors dressed up in costume alone, but thespians who have had what has been termed ‘digital fur technology’ imposed on them in what amounts to some highly-stylized deepfakes – more on this later. 

Hayward is very good, in part because she is a noticeably better dancer than everyone in tow. She is also operating at a more theatrical, overly expressive register than nearly every single other performer. This could be a detraction and distraction, as it was for Joel Edgerton’s Falstaff in Netflix’s recent The King, but here the milieu calls for such an approach and Hayward thrives in it.

Swift is also operating on a similar level and as such stands out. The seasoned and outstanding singer-songwriter, by no means a very talented actress, adopts the exaggerated theatricality she likewise deployed in every Australian tour since Speak Now and in her best video clips (Blank Space, Out of The Woods, You Belong With Me) to great effect.

Elba, despite operating at a more traditionally dramatic register, does well simply for being so charismatic, as does McKellen who steals the whole show just by licking the remnants of a bowl. Wilson also has a few funny one-liners.

There is one scene, the Jellicle Ball, where the potential for what this adaptation could have been is evident. It is the only scene in the movie where Hooper both allows a shot to rest on routines for more than several seconds and where long shots manage to encompass the whole of the dancers’ movements. There are precious few minutes and indeed seconds where dance is actually resplendent, there is spatial awareness, what is happening can be accounted for and fans of ballet and this dimension of the stage musical, this author no less, can just sit and enjoy themselves.

All these aspects amount to less than 10 minutes in a 110 minute film. The rest is barely watchable, and there’s no such joy of cat people leaping at you if you’re so lucky to have an aisle seat.

Hooper has formulated a composition of his picture more closely akin to the editing style of Michael Bay’s most action-orientated flicks than anything befitting the practical and indeed very elemental joy audiences will always relish from just watching someone dance about a stage. The choppy, disorientating style well-serving an uber-stylised action sequence (just watch the first ten minutes of 6 Underground), here the approach is unnecessary and confusing to the extent that no routine is rendered memorable, discernible and at times even perceptible.

Moreover, Hooper has continued to frame sequences with varying headroom and often lack thereof, meaning that parts of bodies are either cut off or shepherded within corners of a frame when all we want to do is see the talented troupe jump and leap about the screen. Those who have seen the Director’s lousy adaptation of Les Miserables or The King’s Speech will no doubt be familiar; these both being films which succeeded not for their direction but the quality of the stories and casts.

It’s one thing for a Director ill-equipped to adapt musicals to steer a good one, this time around he’s chosen a bad one; repetitive, boring and lacking considered emotional hooks.

Absent any real story, Hooper can really only rely on his performers. Granted very little space to shine given the pacing of the narrative there’s dire hope, and less so when you’re crediting James Corden first. Most of the leads’ performances are serviceable at best; viewers will struggle to remember who even headlined which song and in fairness this is largely due to, yes we’re getting to it – the Digital. Fur. Technology.

It’s fascinating to compare this to 2019’s The Lion King which infamously went too far in the other direction; recreating animals’ bodies while failing to effectively emote the felines. Here, it’s human faces on cats bodies which still look very much like people’s bodies. We’re simply still too far in uncanny valley territory to render such a style nearly so believable or endearing as pure animation has managed for many decades past.

There’s nothing wrong with trying something new, far from it, and any feature can exist deep in the valley and still be enjoyable, but it really comes down to consistency. It might even be alright if the bulk of the ‘digital fur tech’ was less polished then this, or if the performers were just wearing costumes and make-up, yet herein there is such a haphazard approach as rendered with many Jellicles, as widely publicised in that first trailer, just looking too different in their attributes or when contrasted with a counterpart’s relative seamlessness. It’s distracting when we’re supposed to be drawn into this world and as intended forget we’re watching digital cat people; no such luck.

Cats is a truly terrible film and one of the worst mainstream flicks of the year; don’t do it to yourself.

Cats is in cinemas from Boxing Day

Cats on Film Fight Club