The trailer for the Cats movie dropped, and audiences have been left highly confused by the very strange feline special effects. It was always an odd idea to turn Cats into a movie. The Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, based on a collection of poems by T.S. Elliot, has been a theater staple since the early 1980s and remains one of the longest-running musicals on both Broadway and the West End. The entirely sung-through show features extensive amounts of choreography and little in the way of plotting, but it remains an audience favorite despite its frequently derided critical status.
Adapting a formless story of singing and dancing cats into any kind of film would be a tough challenge even for the most experienced director (and indeed, Steven Spielberg’s former animation company, Amblimation, were working on a cartoon of Cats before they shut down in the 1990s). When it was announced that Tom Hooper, the Oscar-winning director of The King’s Speech and Les Misérables, would take on the task and that the movie would be live-action, audiences wondered what it would look like. And then we saw the trailer. Suffice to say, the trailer for Cats elicited intensely strong reactions. It’s rare to see social media uniformly united in a shared opinion but the Cats trailer did just that, and it wasn’t a positive opinion.
The memes were quickly created and most people seemed truly baffled by what they’d seen. Fans of the musical had been wondering how this film would take form but few could have predicted it would have looked as it does: A CGI-heavy display of giant sets and actors with vague cat-like features singing and doing ballet. Everything about it just seemed like a fever dream and it was hard to believe that Universal Pictures would spend so much money on a project, one many deemed unfilmable, and have this as its end result. But what is it exactly about the Cats trailer that left fans so terrified? Here are the elements of the movie that are the main offenders.
Cats Was Clearly Shot on a Soundstage
The production team of Cats has much to be proud of with what they have created for this movie. In order to achieve the illusion that the actors are the size of typical house cats, the sets have been built to scale. That means the doors, furniture, accessories, etc., have been constructed in larger sizes to make the humans seem smaller. This is an old trick, as seen in movies like The Borrowers and theme park attractions like Toy Story Mania at Disneyland, and it can be incredibly effective if done well. The Cats team clearly has a sharp eye for detail that’s evident in the trailer, but it’s hard to escape that the settings still look like they were shot on a soundstage. Cats is clearly not a movie aiming for realism, so having decidedly unreal and overtly theatrical sets could work for a movie like this, but in this instance, the production design only serves to exacerbate those uncanny tensions from the audience. Instead of being something to marvel, an integral part of this immersive experience, it becomes something else for baffled audiences to nit-pick.
The Digital Fur Technology is Off
Much was made of the “digital fur technology” in Cats' behind-the-scenes video that released prior to the trailer. This supposed advancement in VFX was what would give the filmmakers the opportunity to create realistic looking cats’ fur on the actors, as well as make them look more feline in appearance overall. Translating that vision into something audiences are willing to believe is no mean feat, and the Cats trailer did the exact opposite.
Said digital fur technology looks oddly cheap in execution. There isn’t enough CGI fur covering the actors, so they end up looking uncomfortably naked. Their faces are also clearly human in form, with a quick dusting of hair and fake ears. There isn’t much in the way of style or design to make them look more feline-esque, which is a curious decision given that they’re supposed to be cats. The focus is more on human features, including eyebrows and teeth, which means the uncanny valley effect is in full force because the faces simply don’t blend in with the rest of the head.
Matters aren’t helped by the necessity of having these cats maintain the bodies of their human actors. Cats is a very dance-heavy show, one that’s filled with ballet, tap, and jazz movement. Turning the actors into cats with the proper hands and feet/paws would make a better stylistic choice but would also probably raise further eyebrows over the unnerving experience. However, what we have in this trailer are cats who walk on two legs, have tails positioned on vaguely obscene parts of the actors’ bodies, and human hands and feet. There are actors doing ballet pointe on bare human-cat feet, and it is disturbing.
It’s all very strange and also a missed opportunity, because one of the stage show’s great strengths is in how it makes each character so distinctive through costuming and make-up. Each cat is recognizable from the get-go and more cat-like in their design than this film. The movie seems determined to make the characters look as human as possible while still being cats, and therein lies the discomfort.
The Scale is Inconsistent
On top of the inherently stagey nature of those sets, there seems to be a startling lack of consistency in the scaling. The actors are supposed to be cat-sized but the changes in their sets and surroundings make even that wildly vary from moment to moment. In one scene, where a cat holds a knife and fork while sitting at a dining room table, and they look tiny, far smaller than a real cat would. In another moment, the character played by Rebel Wilson gets her hand/paw stuck in a mousetrap, which raises further questions about the sizing, as do the seemingly minuscule candles behind her.
Scaling this production may have proven more difficult than initially assumed. If the actors moved like real cats - meaning on four legs - then it may have been easier to get a true sense of size compared to the set. But because they walk and dance around on two legs like humans, they can’t help but seem tinier than they’re intended to. There is still time for the production team of Cats to work on various elements of the VFX but this is an entire concept they have committed to and have to see through to the end. Audiences may be won over by it in the end - this musical is extremely popular for a reason - but for now, fans and potential ticket buyers are left with more questions than answers as to how this movie came to be.
- Cats (2019) release date: Dec 20, 2019