And it does look that way. But I still find it difficult to understand the wave of outrage provoked by the film now that so many critics have joined the chorus of vituperation. While the aesthetic marriage of human and feline does require a little getting used to, it doesn’t take long. Despite critics’ complaints about ungainly poses with limbs at weird angles, the film features some exciting dance and, bizarre or not, those catsuits serve only to enhance the suppleness of the dancers and the fluidity of the choreography.
Something as unapologetically theatrical as Cats was always going to be hard to film. It has no plot. The whimsical collection of T.S. Eliot cat poems from which the script is drawn is no more than a prompt for a series of musical numbers and the feline talent show which ties them altogether has a weird conclusion. The prize winner is supposedly rewarded with a new life yet the ending makes this prize look very much like a one-way ticket to the Hereafter.
Then there is the look of the thing. If Hooper and his team had gone with the face paint, wigs and tights from the Broadway or West End productions they would have been accused of doing an uninspired translation direct from stage to screen. Instead, the cast wore motion capture suits during the shoot and their cat-like features were added later by the computer. In other words, Hooper decided to take advantage of all the technology that cinema can provide and he’s been
pilloried for it.
His production design has also been written off as rubbish. He and the screenwriter, Lee Hall (Billy Elliot, Rocketman) have taken the setting back to the 1930s, when Eliot wrote the poems, and tried to evoke the atmosphere of the last of London’s music hall days and to my mind, it works. There’s a
nostalgic gleam to the camera work and if there is a neon glint here and there, why not? We’re in the West End.
Hooper has looked to the Royal Ballet for his lead. Francesca Hayward, one of the company’s principal dancers, has been cast as Victoria, the young cat hoping to be adopted into the tribe of Jellicle cats who come out at night to amuse themselves in the streets and lanes of Soho and Piccadilly. It’s her wide-eyed response to the show’s familiar characters that carries us through the narrative and if nothing else, the film should launch her on a screen career because she’s terrific.
Inevitably, it’s a patchy film. Because there’s not much of a narrative line, its pace depends on the effectiveness of each number. And because Hooper has concentrated on the performances rather than the voices, the songs rarely soar. Memory, the show’s emblematic highlight, loses much of its impact because Jennifer Hudson’s Grizabella is so choked with tears she can hardly get the words out.
Ian McKellen, playing the tattered old veteran, Gus, the Theatre Cat, supplies some of the best bits. Delivering a salute to times gone by which is taken direct from Eliot’s poem, he conjures up a sad ruefulness which goes a long way towards justifying Hooper’s choice of his 1930s setting.
As Old Deuteronomy, the tribe elder, Judi Dench plays a feline version of Judi Dench but Idris Elba, whose pantherish suit has also attracted catcalls from the twitterers, is fiercely charismatic as Macavity, the villain.
While it’s far from being perfect, or even purr-fect (feline puns are proving irresistible to everyone writing about the film), it certainly doesn’t warrant the abuse that has been heaped upon it. At the very least, it deserves a chance.
Sandra Hall is a film critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.