The big-screen adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Cats is sure to be one of the weirdest movie musicals ever committed to celluloid. Directed by Tom Hooper, the film has one of the starriest casts for any major movie in 2019, with big names including Jennifer Hudson, Sir Ian McKellen, Taylor Swift, Idris Elba, Rebel Wilson, James Corden, Dame Judi Dench, and Jason Derulo, to name a few.
It’s hard not to be at the very least confused by the Cats trailer, particularly the approach to the main characters. The actors’ body shapes have not been changed to match those of felines – they’re still very much human in that regard – but their faces have been altered through the much-vaunted "digital fur technology." But while being cynical about Cats is easy, this is clearly something that Universal has a lot of hope in, given that they’ve put the movie in a key Christmas release slot against Star Wars 9.
For all the effort that's evidently gone into Cats (regardless of success), there's no getting around the inherent problems with the movie. Adapting Cats is a whole new level of difficulty and strangeness, even by the standards of movie musicals, and the trailer shows just how weird it had to be.
What Even Is Cats?
Cats is an entirely sung-through musical that premiered in London in 1981. Composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber, the lyrics all came from the poetry collection Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot. The musical tells the story of a tribe of cats known as the Jellicles and the night they spend together as they decide which cat will ascend to a new life. It's a primarily dance-focused show with little plot, and at the time of its premiere, was one of the biggest risks of Lloyd Webber's career. It also became one of his greatest successes. Cats is the fourth-longest-running Broadway show in history and the sixth-longest in the West End.
Cats is often referred to as the first real mega-musical of the 1980s, a genre that Lloyd Webber and his regular producer partner Cameron MacKintosh helped to define. These shows - think Les Misérables, Phantom of the Opera, Chess, Miss Saigon - were big-budget flashy spectacles that were grand in scale and intended to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. What made Cats stand out, even amid mixed reviews when it launched on Broadway, was its appealing one-of-a-kind theatrical nature. The sets were big, the costumes striking, the dancing memorable, and so much of the music designed to stick in your mind, with plenty of power ballad potential. It became an event and had an appeal that allowed it to be staged worldwide in multiple languages.
Plenty of people mocked Cats for obvious reasons. After all, it is a show about singing and dancing cats that features lots of actors in leotards with fake ears playing out a Christ allegory. It’s still a topic of mockery, as evidenced by one hilarious running joke in the last season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. However, that’s done little to quash the musical’s status not only as a favorite with audiences but a true theatrical icon of a very strange time in pop culture.
Who Is A Cats Movie For?
The first question that comes to mind when talking about the Cats movie is a simple one: who is this film for? What audience demographic does Universal have in mind for a splashy effects-heavy adaptation of an ‘80s stage musical that’s all about singing cats who do ballet and argue about who goes to heaven? Sure, the musical was incredibly popular but there’s no guarantee of a crossover audience to film. This seems like such a risk for the studio, not just commercially but critically. If this thing flops, the jokes write themselves.
But there may very well be method in the madness. You can’t discount the billions of dollars this show has made over the past 38 years and the generations of fans who came out in droves to see it on the stage around the world. It’s a musical that helped to change the game in Britain in the ’80s, thanks to its conceptual nature and focus on a dance-driven narrative more than the traditional book approach. It’s questionable whether the show’s popularity has endured well into the late 2010s, as its popularity peaked in the mid-90s before its Broadway run wrapped up. Still, it’s a show with big-name recognition, an instantly recognizable hook, and songs people around the world know, and that’s before you get to the illustrious cast. Musicals are having a moment on-screen too, thanks to money-makers like The Greatest Showman and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. However, there’s a reason so many people are skeptical of a movie version of Cats.
The Cats Movie Looks Ridiculous
Even before you watch the trailer, the movie adaptation of Cats always sounded like an utterly bonkers endeavor. The musical is more interested in dance than plot, combining aspects of ballet with jazz and experimental movement (this made it one of the more difficult musical theater shows for actors at the time). The dream-like nature of the narrative doesn’t lend itself well to the traditional cinematic structure either. Pre-trailer, it had already been revealed that the sets would be built to scale to ensure our human actors appeared cat-sized, and that “digital fur technology” would be applied to their faces and bodies. So much of the allure of the show is in how it encourages audiences to use their imaginations to transform those leotard-clad actors into real cats. With film, the production has to do the heavy lifting.
The trailer showed off all that fur CGI and social media responded largely with laughter. The uncanny valley nature of the production was on full show, particularly with how the actors’ faces didn’t seem to blend in fully with the surrounding fur, making it look as though they were wearing ill-fitting costumes. Some actors fare better than others, but the overall look is immensely discomfiting. Given the dance-focused nature of the musical and their obvious desire to make the big-name actors’ faces visible, this approach still seems confusing. What seems charming on-stage looks far more sinister in this manner.
It remains to be seen if Cats can capture the hearts of audiences worldwide in cinematic form as the stage musical did. Whatever happens, the sheer novelty of this very strange show being adapted in this extremely weird way is sure to entice the morbidly curious to the theater, but will they come out in the numbers Universal is hoping for?