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Pussycat dull: Why Cats is a dog

 

CATS
Directed by Tom Hooper

The star-studded adaptation of the West End musical looks weird and sings badly.

It would be the easiest thing in the world to throw one star at this terrible film and write a scathing review. Everyone who saw the early trailer was quick to scream in derision, and even diehard fans of the musical have been waiting nervously to see if Tom Hooper’s live-action version reaches the heights his Oscar-winning Les Miserables from 2012.

But in the spirit of Christmas, and because Hooper and his cast of unknown-but-talented West End performers mixed with famous-but-sadly-out-of-their-depth film actors (what on earth is Idris Elba doing here?) clearly gave it their misguided all, so this caterwauling mess deserves at least some analysis of what went wrong.

Since he switched from a solid British TV career of costume and crime dramas to feature films a decade ago, the British director has hardly made a misstep. An endearing football flick (The Damned United) was followed swiftly by his multi-award winning The King’s Speech, with a brave rendition of Les Miserables two years later. The director broke with screen musical convention by having his performers sing live on set, rather than acting to their pre-recorded voices. Anne Hathaway’s one-shot I Dreamed a Dream was breathlessly impressive, and won her a Best Supporting Actress gong. Four years later, Hooper’s The Danish Girl brought Alicia Vikander the same glory.

And then someone (Hooper? an avaricious producer? the Devil?) decided we needed a live-action, live-recorded version of Cats. Hooper wisely cast pop starlet Taylor Swift in a minor role (which inevitably steals the show), and gathered Dame Judi Dench, Sir Ian “I’m up for anything” McKellen and talented songstress Jennifer Hudson to headline the ensemble of motley beasts. Elba clearly assumed this wouldn’t affect his chances of becoming the new James Bond, and even heavyweight cockney geezer Ray Winstone signed on.

The result is simply, awkwardly, awful. You have to be a fan of musicals to have even read this far, and you’d have to love the songs of Cats to pay the ticket price, but unfortunately the live-recording does not pay off this time. Most of the esteemed actors are weak singers (even those like comedian Rebel Wilson who studied musical theatre in her youth), and are not up to the challenges of dancing and singing at the same time. (To be fair, the Les Miserables actors didn’t have to pirouette about an over-sized movie set while they delivered their powerful solos.) Even Hudson, tasked with delivering the show’s big hit, Memory, is comparatively lacklustre for most of the song until she belts out “Touch me!” and jolts the audience from their slumber. James Corden is the only one with stage presence and a hearty pair of lungs on him. (Younger viewers will praise famous singer-dancer Jason Derulo for his energy, but the Rum Tum Tugger is surely the worst musical number of all time.)

The main aspect that makes Cats so uncomfortable to watch, however, is the slavish use of CGI to turn actor-in-cat-leotard into actor-in-CGI-fur-who-moves-like-a-cat. It’s inexplicably wrong-headed to film dancers who have evident human talent and then computer-generate their moves to be more feline. The result is video-gamey and alienating. Human faces, teeth and hands peek out from airbrushed furry bodies. It shouldn’t really be any more cringeworthy than the stage-show Cats with the hyperbolic make-up and over-accentuated moves, but somehow the film’s efforts to make things more “realistic” are just embarrassing.

Hooper appeared at the world premiere in New York this week a mere 36 hours after he approved the final cut of the film. Seemingly unable to express much enthusiasm about the finished product, he offered “Let the audience decide, but I think we’ve come a long way since that first trailer”.

Unfortunately for Hooper, not long enough.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★1/2

Video: Universal Pictures NZ