Cruel comments about film adaptation of Cats valid


G, One star

The international media, and the internet generally, have not been kind to Tom Hooper's big-screen imagining of the long-running Andrew Lloyd Webber Cats since it debuted on British screens December 17.

They have collectively rubbished it for the same things the original stage production was nailed for - childishness, the lack of plot, trite music - and yet that went on to make hundreds of millions of dollars.

Judi Dench as Old Deuteronomy in Cats. Picture: Universal Pictures

Judi Dench as Old Deuteronomy in Cats. Picture: Universal Pictures

The film version has a new volume of gripes to annoy the viewer on top of these still very valid points, the loudest of which is the filmmakers' approach to turning their human performers into felines by laying CGI fur pelts over the top of the filmed live performance. The filmmakers have admitted to the general off-putting weirdness of this CGI by announcing an 'upgrade' version to be pushed out to theatres in the coming weeks. I don't feel too many theatres will still be playing the film to validate this further expense, like throwing good money after bad.

Critics and newspaper sub-editors have particularly relished the opportunity to wordsmith some clever jabs, with Rolling Stone's Peter Travers calling it a "Broadway musical adaptation straight out of the litter box," Tim Robey of the British Daily Telegraph giving it zero stars and declaring it a "calamity which will leave jaws littered across floors and agents unemployed," while online reviewer Robbie Collins went as far as to pronounce it a "mesmerisingly ugly fiasco that makes you feel like your brain is being eaten by a parasite (and a) viewing experience so stressful that it honestly brought on a migraine."

These comments are cruel - hundreds of people worked for years on this film and tens of millions of dollars of people's money is at stake here - but they're also funny and very valid.

Stage musicals are the kind thing you either love or hate. I made an expat friend of mine come see TheWizard of Oz prequel musical Wicked on the West End when it first came out. I adored it, while he deep-breathed through clenched teeth and couldn't make it to even the interval before standing up and saying "I'll see you at home".

I've loved big-screen musical adaptations. I saw Adam Shankman's Hairspray three times at the cinema, and Rob Marshall's Oscar-winning Chicago similarly pays off on repeat viewings.

But I've also walked out on a few, including Into The Woods and if I weren't being paid to review Cats, I would have walked out on this too. I actually quite enjoyed the bad CGI. I was mesmerised by all the effort that went into the moving fur and ears while all the performers keep their human hands. What was frustrating was how boring it was. Remembering back to the joy I felt seeing the stage production when it came to Sydney in the mid-80s, I think of the line from Corinthians about putting away childish things.

In a stage setting, adapting T. S. Eliot's poetry for the nursery room Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats was charming, with the performers crawling all over the audience like a real cat might. On the screen, the awkward superimposition of cat physiognomy on human doesn't work quite enough to allow us to suspend disbelief, and like the Emperor's New Clothes, one sees only the frustrations.

If Tom Hooper was embracing the for-the-cheap-seats stage-bound approach to some of the performances then I suppose he was successful. Rebel Wilson and James Corden ham-fist it for maximum laughs. Aussie Steven McRae does the country proud as principal dancer for the Royal Ballet in London, but his costuming as Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat is more Tom of Finland than Starlight Express. His dancing is fantastic though.

One of the things Andrew Lloyd Webber's music has going for it is the memorable, hummable beats and the rhyming of the lyrics, but when they bring in Jason Derulo as the Rum Tum Tugger and he does that annoying Amercia's Got Talent thing where a syllable gets drawn out across 10 notes, then even that is ruined.

It's not all sturm und drang though. Some of the performances connect, some of the CGI is where it needs to be. Particularly Laurie Davidson's Mister Mistoffelees, in part because his character wears human clobber, but mostly because he commits emotionally where others go full vaudeville.

Similar commitment comes from Ian McKellen, let down by the shallowness of his role, and Judi Dench, whose CGI costume and posturing drew unintended laughs on occasion from the women sitting in my row in a packed Boxing Day screening. I couldn't tell whether the negative reviews or the nostalgia was filling the theatre.

This story Cruel comments about Cats valid first appeared on The Canberra Times.