New from Jeff York on The Establishing Shot: “CATS”, QUITE SIMPLY, IS A DOG

If you saw the trailer, you had a good idea of just how badly conceived the filmed adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical CATS was going to be. But after seeing the 110-minute, $95 million mess, bad is too small of a word. This film is a dog.

Seldom has an adaptation been as blundered at every level as this one. One could readily list a hundred mistakes in it, and I’m sure the makers of those “Everything Wrong With” videos on YouTube will go to town in exactly that way. Me? I’ll list nine, an appropriate number given the number of lives felines are supposed to have. This CATS, however, and all of its screw-ups, arrives in the cineplex DOA.

1.) The source material has aged badly

When he wrote the musical in 1981, Webber kept faithfully true to the T.S. Eliot source material – the book of poems entitled “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.” Eliot’s musings about felines were equally nonsensical and whimsical. He coined the term “Jellicle cat” to signify scruffy, black and white cats, which he had a fondness for. By the time you’ve heard the cast sing that gibberish word for the hundredth time, you’ll wish he had just used a term like “domesticated cat” or “pet.” The lyrics sound creaky, dated, and not particularly charming or funny, like a lot of Eliot’s misguided take on cats. (Cats aren’t supposed to drink milk or dream, for example. Need I go on?) The odd poetry really doesn’t play in 2019, especially when the one song that is crystal clear in meaning and intent is a new song written by Taylor Swift for this adaptation. There’s quaint, and then there’s irritating and worn, and too much of the jellicleness falls into the latter category here.

2.) The look of the cat/human hybrids is ugly and inconsistent

The form-fitting fur costumes for the big screen accentuate human anatomy more than suggest our four-legged friends. The film is supposed to be family-friendly, but the look of the characters is far too sexualized, too Dr. Moreau. Rebel Wilson’s Jennyanydots portrayal is the most egregious, as she rubs her loins and holds her tail between her legs as if it’s an erection. Why they simply didn’t ape the stage costumes is a puzzler as John Napier’s award-winning designs mixed dancewear with tasteful fur trimming and some human clothing, but nothing about it conjured the feel of a “furry” fetishist.

Also, the attempts to look like real cats are inconsistent. Sure, the ears move, as do the whiskers, but what good is any of that when all the cats have human hands and feet, and often left flesh-colored at that. Couldn’t such appendages have been painted or covered with gloves or socks? And why aren’t any of the cats’ noses painted here? Cats’ noses are pink, brown, and almost always a different color than the yap surrounding them. To a cat lover, it’s inexplicable.

3.) The special effects aren’t very special

The cat dancers here do a lot of wonderfully slinky moves, just like they did on stage, but the movie wants them to be able to leap about too and that requires wirework. Granted, the wires were removed in post-production, but when the dancers jump high in the sky here, it looks like crappy stuntwork. The movements are slow and rickety.

The effect of removing the human ears in post-production looks wrong too. Not enough hair fills out the edges of the face, giving some cast members the look of a burn victim or plastic surgery gone amuck. Placing human faces on the mice and cockroach characters is ugly and cheap-looking as well, but then so is the whole grotesque concept of Busby Berkeley dancing vermin.

4.) The acting soars…over-the-top

On Broadway, you can be as big as you want because you’re playing to the balcony. Movies are a whole other matter. Close-ups on film don’t require the same large efforts. Director Tom Hooper failed to learn from his mistakes in the movie version of LES MISERABLES that he directed. He shoved the camera right up into the actors’ faces to prove that they weren’t lip-syncing. Unfortunately, it showed off too much spittle and spray too. The same happens here. Jennifer Hudson’s Grizabella is so screechy, melodramatic, and moist, it makes a sympathetic character into a shrill one.

As for most of the rest of the cast, they either mug shamelessly or overdo the cat clichés. James Corden is slyly funny until he starts hacking up hairballs. Ian McKellen creates some pathos as Gus the Theater Cat, but then he vamps through his solo number and the heart-tugging moment almost becomes laughable. At least Judi Dench attempts to underplay throughout, but she’s not helped by a costume that makes her look more like Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion than a dignified Old Deuteronomy.

5.) If you’re going to write dialogue, resist hoary cat puns

Webber’s original stage production was a sung-thru musical. Adding dialogue now, with cheap puns like, “Cat got your tongue?” and “Cat’s out of the bag” should’ve given the filmmakers pause. (Not paws.)  There are too many cat behavioral clichés on display too, with the cast leaning hard on traits like hissing, preening, and lip-licking. They’re like students in a freshman improv class – “Okay, everyone, now you’re all cats!”

6.) Taylor Swift is wasted in a nothing role

She looks quite good in her “Josie and the Pussycats” kind of way, but her role as Bombalurina is virtually a throwaway. For starters, she doesn’t appear onscreen until the last 30 minutes, and then all she does basically is sing about what a badass Macavity is. We already know that as Idris Alba’s character is clearly the villain of this piece as evidenced by his every insidious action and all the snide lines he utters. Where’s Bombalurina been the whole time?

7.) The scale is all wrong

The cats here are too small in the context of many of the film’s settings, particularly its human homes. The scale isn’t properly proportioned as almost everything is too oversized, reminiscent of the fantasy sequences in ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND. Such satirical scale worked there because it was a spoof of childhood. Here, it just looks wrong.

8.) Are we in a human world or a cat world?

The opening scene has a high-heeled woman step out of a car and throw her bagged pet away in a dirty alley. Additionally, Gus sings about appearing on stage with Shakespearean actors. But then the city marquees, billboards, and hotel names all are ‘cat-ified.’ So, are we in the human world or a modified cat one? Such inconsistencies should have been taken care of in the first pass through Final Draft.

9.) Tom Hooper is not a natural for such material

The Oscar-winning director for THE KING’S SPEECH tends to do well with character-driven pieces, like JOHN ADAMS on HBO and PRIME SUSPECT on Granada Television for the UK. Musicals are different though, requiring a sophisticated blend of the extroverted and the intimate. Too much of LES MIZ felt histrionic and broad, and the same goes here. He’s also not a natural at moving the camera and relies far too much on actors moving in and out of frame to give his film action.

Casting principal dancer Francesca Hayward of the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden as the lead cat Victoria here was his one inspired choice. She’s got expressive eyes and entrancing moves, and she makes her audience conduit character the calm in all the storm around her.

Alternately, Hooper badly botches the presentation of magical Mr. Mistoffelees, letting actor Laurie Edwards play him as far too irritating. The “Skimbleshanks” number not only feels extraneous here, but the character comes off as completely lackluster in the way Steven McRae performs the part. And the estimable Ray Winstone is given little to do but growl as Captain Growltiger, another throwaway role. So much for Hooper being such “an actor’s director.”

Perhaps the simple, stage-bound show should have remained so. Doing an adaptation of it almost 40 years after the fact is crazy late too, not helped by the fact that playwright John Guare satirized the notion of a CATS movie musical in his award-winning play SIX DEGREES OF SEPERATION way back in 1990. CATS is not a great musical onstage, anyway, but it’s been an enormous success for decades and should have garnered a better adaptation.  And cats, as a superior species, certainly deserve a lot better than this effort too.

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