It’s never been cool to like Cats. Even in the early 2000s, as I frequented musical theatre message boards, a place for the unhip to feel uninhibited, you were still met with derision if you were a Cats stan. But that doesn’t mean the show is indefensible.
Since opening on the West End in 1981, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats has become a musical punchline, allowing for the likes of Tina Fey to The Simpsons to make light of how a bunch of T.S. Eliot poems about cats could become — free of hyperbole — a worldwide phenomenon. For theatre purists, it’s infuriating, to general audiences perplexing, but for many, it’s a symbol of what makes Broadway so great. Cats, above all else, is a show that is unapologetically itself.
So when the trailer for the film adaptation dropped, the internet went into a tizzy over its peaks and uncanny valleys, spiked cat penises, tails in places they shouldn’t be, and of course the film’s digital fur technology. All of these conversations revolve around the same theme: this movie looks straight-up weird. But if you were expecting Cats to be anything other than unusual, then you may be missing the point of what makes the show so engaging. A point that hasn’t been overlooked by the film’s director, Tom Hooper.
At its core, Cats is best described as having exuberant strangeness. A musical that casts tradition to the wind with a loose narrative, an electrifying synth-heavy score, and an energetic chorus of dancers who just so happen to be dressed like imaginary cats. It’s a show that has always been a little off-beat even for Broadway, so the film should make audiences say, “What the fuck is going on?” The strangeness is hardwired into the show. And Hooper has placed it front and center in the film.
Now, you may be asking yourself, “How do you have so much faith in Cats, Jacob?” Outside of my own admiration for the show’s bizarre eccentricities, it’s predominantly because Hooper has proven he can extract the core quality of a revered musical and translate it for the screen. He already did it with Les Miserables.
The stage musical Les Miserables has endured all these years because of a quality I refer to as its grand intimacy. Like the barricades that are constructed on stage, the musical has a grandeur that is meant to encompass the scope of the original tome written by Victor Hugo. But peppered into this largeness is a series of reposeful musical soliloquies that let us see behind the veneer of each character into their quietest moments of reflection as revolution and heartache swarm around them.
In the film adaptation, these moments of grand intimacy are best showcased in the songs “I Dreamed a Dream” and “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.” Both are somber asides for the characters to wrestle with deeply rooted grief. The orchestrations swell, growing louder, as the lyrics bleed with yearning and loss.
On stage, these moments are typically set down centrally in a spotlight washed with cool blues, creating an artifice of intimacy within the vastness of the theatre. But with the steady hand of Hooper and the sharp eye of cinematographer Danny Cohen, these moments are captured in the film through long sweeping shots and stunning close-ups, allowing for the take — and in turn, the music — to play out more naturally, like it would in a live performance.
Cohen frames individual actors’ faces so their sorrow can feel overwhelming, really emphasizing the miserable in Les Miserables. These grand moments of emotion are meant to reach the furthest rows of the house. Here the camera draws its audience in so close that these meditative solos are allowed to become intimate whispers, while still retaining a ferocity that could fill a 1,500 seat theatre.
I don’t think any of this would have been possible if it wasn’t for Hooper’s insistence on having the cast sing live, rather than lip-sync over a pre-recorded track. Typically movie musicals will record the soundtrack in advance of the film going into production, meaning, especially for a sung-through musical like Les Miserables, the cast’s performances are locked in well before they begin shooting. It doesn’t allow for the actors to follow their instincts, gutting on-set spontaneity as they must adhere to what has already been recorded. If Les Miserables hadn’t done this, we may not have heard Eddie Redmayne or Anne Hathaway‘s hushed intensity explode into throaty mournful cries, capturing the type of raw emotion typically reserved for a live audience.
While there won’t be any live-singing in Cats, perhaps the most inventive, and theatrical, aspects of the film will be in its motion capture and set design. Computers cannot account for the grace and form of real-life dancers, so motion capture is integral for bringing the show’s most beloved dances to life. And just like the stage musical, the sets are made to-scale with tires and stoves dwarfing the actors to better represent their feline size. In the film, however, it’s not just a junkyard that is the JellIcles domain, but all of London.
This instance of faithfulness may be the source for much of the discomfit audiences felt watching the first trailer. London appears to be infested by minuscule cat people like The Borrowers took a vacation on The Island of Dr. Moreau. But for those who love films like Howard The Duck or Mac and Me, the discordance between the fluffy material and unnerving character design gives Cats an undeniably esoteric quality that it wears humbly on its sleeve.
So will Cats be any good? I can’t really say, but if we are to speculate what T.S. Eliot would have thought of the film, he may very well have dug it. Claire Reihill, his estate’s administrator said:
“I think Eliot might have enjoyed the rich strangeness of the blurring of the boundary between human and cat in the trailer, which is in keeping with the elusiveness of the world of the poems – or indeed the nocturnal surrealism of something like ‘Rhapsody on Windy Night’ [the basis of the song “Memory”]. He was also a great fan of Jacques Tati’s movies, with their surreal urban ballets.”
Like with Les Miserables‘ grand intimacy, Hooper seems to have captured exactly what makes Cats so infectious, its exuberant strangeness, and made it a cornerstone of the film adaptation. While I don’t expect Cats haters to become converts by this Christmas, they may miss out on a cinematic event that is unlike anything we’ve really seen before. Am I giving Cats too much credit, or have you just refused to ever give it a chance?