As promised, Film Stories editor Simon Brew delivers his 2500 word (and a few more on top) essay on the 2019 Cats movie, with snark very much not allowed.
The story so far. As part of the Film Stories fundraising appeal that recently concluded, I committed to watching the film Cats and then writing a 2500 word article about it. I’d seen the movie once before, in something of a haze. But on Saturday October 3rd, I kept my word and watched it again. Wearing cat ears.
The rules of this piece: in keeping with the ethos of Film Stories, the piece can’t be nasty. It doesn’t have to be a love letter, but it does have to be rounded. This, then, is the article. The wordcount starts after the line…
Bluntly: how could he have known?
When Thomas Alva Edison brought firstly the phonograph to life in 1877 and then put into the works the motion picture camera a decade later, he unwittingly put the building blocks in place not just for cinema itself, but for a difficult night over a century and change later.
For on Tuesday December 17th 2019, film critics in the UK were presented with what could safely be described as a bit of an evening. The only two big press screenings – last minute press screenings at that – for a pair of last Christmas’ biggest movie releases (remember big movie releases? Halcyon days) were to take place pretty much back to back.
The problem being – as had been well documented – that Academy Award-winner director Tom Hooper’s big screen take on Cats had been running things to the wire ahead of its release date, whilst Disney wanted to minimise spoilers for Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker, and thus held its screening as late as it could.
Unbeknownst to the now long-deceased Edison, the films were thus arranged on the same night, leading to the critical fraternity of UK cinema having to dash across London to see the new Star Wars film as they tried to process quite what they’d just seen. I was safely tucked up in the West Midlands watching something else at the time, but that’s me just using up 29 words there and we all know it.
Cats, you might recall, ultimately didn’t get very good reviews, and its box office was well below what Universal had hoped and expected. Costing around $100m to make – and ultimately returning some $75m worldwide – it’s been mercilessly lampooned ever since.
The film was always on a hiding to nothing after the release after its first, infamous trailer. From that point on, it had a target painted on its CG furry back, and it never lost the feeling that it was playing catch-up. Indeed, the film was finished just a day or two before that first screening, without the chance for a single test screening of the final film.
A slightly ambitious planned BAFTA awards campaign was withdrawn rather quietly, and the film ultimately failed to notch up a single award nomination. A little harsh, considering the craft in the music, and some the superb set design work. But then the film didn’t go down well. And in the aftermath of its release, the situation didn’t improve. It’d be remiss of me not to mention that many of the films effects workers lost their jobs immediately following the release of the movie, having worked arduously on the film around the clock to hit its release date. The stories of it not being the nicest work environment leave, for me, a far sourer taste than the movie ever could.
But also, this was a film that employed hundreds, if not thousands of people, many of them based with the UK film industry. The kind of huge production conceived and made in the UK that helps support filmmaking in Britain, and invests in the industry’s future.
I covered the film’s production in a podcast episode here, and thus I’m not going to fill up my wordcount by going on about it. But still, if I’m writing all these words about the film, cut me some slack and allow me a few words or so to plug my podcast…
Anyway: I’d seen the film around the time of its release, but hadn’t got back near it since. In truth, I was a bit muddled when I saw it, so this time around, I was determined to give it my full attention. I donned cat ears, and pressed play on the Blu-ray I’d procured for this particular task. (Checks word count: only 637! Shit!)
I sort-of-Tweeted along as I watched the film (the hashtag I used was #cats2500 if you want to follow it all), and whilst this article is deliberately hunting out the positives – of which I actually think there are quite a few – I should declare that I don’t think it’s a great film. Yet also, I think its fundamental problem isn’t the narrative – I’m coming to that shortly – but that the technical decisions are so often distracting.
An example. Back in 2003, Barbra Streisand infamously tried to supress images of her Malibu home that appeared on the internet. She sued photographer Kenneth Adelman, even though his project had been to capture the entire coastline, and that’s what he’d been shooting pictures of (it was unclear if he even knew Streisand had a house there). When he put the images online, Streisand was unimpressed, and her lawyers got to work.
This, though, created what’s known as The Streisand Effect. That until word of the legal case spread, nobody was searching for an image of her home amidst Adelman’s work, and the vast majority of us didn’t even know she had a home in the area. After the news broke, searches spiked, and suddenly hundreds of thousands of people knew exactly where Streisand lived.
Separately, a decision was made with the production of Cats to digital alter the area where – there’s no easy way around this – everyone’s bits and pieces should be. It’s the Streisand Effect but for animal groin areas. The effect of the alteration is – again, bear with me – you can’t help but look. Curious decisions such as these blight Cats, and reading the extensive list of credits, I couldn’t help but feel for the hundreds of brilliant people who worked on the film, whose efforts were blighted by a breakneck, impossible schedule and strange decisions from the top.
At this stage in the article, I’m going to insert the word turnip, just to see if people are still reading this far. If you are, please write ‘turnip’ in the comments below. Ta. (979 words. Good grief. We’re not even half way).
One of the key criticisms that was aimed at the Cats film was that the story itself was and is an odd one. That it doesn’t make a fat lot of sense, and that the actual narrative – cats competing each year to see who gets sent to heaven, basically – is best not given a lot of scrutiny.
Again, I can’t do too much battle with that. But also, there’s no shortage of films whose story shouldn’t be held up to the light. Heck, just before I watched Cats I gave Timecop another spin, gloriously enjoying it but giggling at how quickly a bunch of American government officials accepted the notion of time travel (although in its defence, at no point was Jean-Claude Van Damme in a feline CG costume).
In the case of Cats though, the criticism of the story – whilst relevant – also overlooked the fact that the stage musical on which the film was based had the same problems. Yet also, that same stage musical earned rich acclaimed, and brought joy – whether you like it or not – to millions of people around the world.
To make a movie of Cats itself wasn’t actually that much of a gamble to my untrained eyes. The show has been seen by over 73 million people (according to its official website), and it ran on Broadway for 18 years (breaking records for musicals as it did so). I don’t think it gets to do that if there’s nothing to it.
I appreciate there’s a snobbery against mainstream entertainment that sometimes exists, but the success of Cats on stage was no fluke. The idea of a film version was no new thing when Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper decided to make it his next project (and he’d guided the big screen take on Les Miserables to box office and Oscar success). And I think some of the key ingredients that made the Cats show such a hit have made it to the film in tact.
Firstly, the songbook. The work of Baron Lloyd Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber is pretty Marmite. Personally, I’d seen Cats on stage a long time ago, and had quite enjoyed it. I think some of his work – Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph & The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat – is excellent. I’m still trying to work out where I can claim my refund for sitting through Love Never Dies, though. The Cats songbook however is sound to my peasant ears, and delivered strongly in the film version (the surround mix on the Blu-ray is really excellent, as a word-gobbling aside).
In particular, Jennifer Hudson is a flat-out world class singing talent, and whenever she starts belting out a tune? Well, she could have walked on dressed as a Batman and I’d still have been stopped still by her vocal performance.
She’s the highlight of a cast with some strong vocal talent too. Taylor Swift, behind digital trappings, looks like she’s having a ball. And the scale and energy of the large production numbers I’d suggest survives the transition to digital effects too. I’m genuinely not sure, in the rush to kick the film, why these qualities didn’t get more credit. Perhaps that doesn’t read as well on a Tweet or in a clickbait headline though.
For me, I don’t think there’s a performer here who’s not giving it their all, and not fully into it. Even those from whom singing is, well, ‘less of a day job’ are very much in the spirit of it. For instance, I love Dame Judi Dench in full-on Rex Harrison mode, talksinging her way through her numbers whilst looking snug and cosey in her flea-ridden fur coat (I love her anecdote from earlier in the year too that Ben Whishaw texts her to say how much he loves watching her in the film!).
The mighty Sir Ian McKellen too has the look of a man who couldn’t give two hoots what the internet thinks, such is the level of fun he’s having. Several times I found myself just watching ostensibly the background dancers, and couldn’t help but be hugely impressed. My point here is that the cast of the movie are on board. In fact, digging into the extra features on the Blu-ray, there’s little doubt that’s the case, with the scale of the big numbers in little doubt. There’s no shortage of energy and application.
I’m not defending the mice, though. Nor the train track. I’m not looking at the film through tinted glasses, and those bits are really odd in a not as much fun odd way.
But back to the good stuff. What’s also been overlooked, I’d argue, is the production design. Eve Stewart has picked up four deserved Oscar nominations thus far, for her work with Hooper and also Mike Leigh. She’s on top form here. I paused the film a few times just to soak in the detail – and the puns (love a background pun) – of the backdrops and the sets. This is proper old-school movie craft at work, with large realised studio sets, dripping with care and attention. I love that a big studio is still willing to stump up for such things, and Stewart’s work is one of the absolute stand-outs about the movie. I’d love to see her work on an Aardman movie. I think she’d have a lot of fun with that.
(Hang on: 1881 words! I’ve got this. Onwards!)
Thing is, I’m finding positives in the film here, and I didn’t think they were very tricky to spot. I know people outside of the land of Film Twitter who went along and had a good time with the movie. Furthermore, it’s a broad family film too – albeit with a bit of explaining to do to the kids afterwards – and a live action spectacle that comes with a U certificate. It feels like a long time since that’s happened, and I suspect it may be a long time before it happens again.
The problems are there to be seen with the movie, that much is clear. Yet I’m always a bit uncomfortable when a film becomes something of a social media football. I’m always conscious that there are human beings on the receiving end somewhere, and I do think that Cats was pretty much doomed for months before it came out. The metaphorical die had been cast and, in truth, if anyone went into Cats with their mind swayed to some degree by the trailer, then there’s not much ammunition in the final film to reverse that.
One quick aside. I was contacted by a few people when it became clear that I was going to write this article, and one of those people was Stuart Ansell. He told me that his young daughter had decided to draw a picture of me watching Cats. Thank you to young Isobel for this, and I love the fact that she added tears (and I like the chair too…)
Isobel also made me a final score chart for the film, amongst the collection of pictures she sent. As you can see, the top score is ‘curry’, and I fully approve of this scoring metric.
I’m putting Cats in the yellow segment (although would rename it ‘okay’ or ‘not dull’). I’ve thought about this. I’ve wondered if I’m just rooting for the undercat a little, or trying very hard to like a film that others don’t. But I found myself, significant warts and all, entertained by the movie. Just to give it some measure, it’s clearly not up to curry standard, but also, I don’t think it’s dull, and I do think it’s entertaining.
I was thinking, too. One of the biggest successes at the box office last year was Disney’s new take on The Lion King. This, you might recall, told exactly the same story with exactly the same songs, just with photorealistic visuals rather than hand drawn animation. Made by brilliant people, it nonetheless struck me as the most risk-free movie of the year. I’m clearly in the minority, but I found Cats at the very least the more interesting of the two films.
Which leads me to end where we started, with Thomas Alva Edison.
He may not have realised that his pioneering work in the 1800s would lead to Cats. In truth, few of us saw it coming. Thing is, I’d always rather someone take a shot and miss than play it safe. I can’t stand before you and claim that I think the film of Cats is a misunderstood masterpiece or anything (Bishop Arch Deacon Lloyd Webber is one of the many who’ve taken a pop at it). But also, I’m not buying this worst film ever stuff (I’ve seen that pop up again in the last weeks). There’s not a bone of nastiness to it, it’s a film that could never be accused of being boring, and I don’t think we’ll ever see Idris Elba looking the same on the big screen ever again.
At the absolute worst, Cats is a harmless mess, and a stark warning to underestimate visual effects work and schedules at your peril. At its best? I reckon even Edison might have cut it a bit of slack. Miaow…
(2521 words! Hurray! I’m off for a saucer of milk…)
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