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In Defense of Enjoying Tom Hooper's 'Cats'

Judi Dench as Old Deuteronomy in Cats (2019) (IMDB) [Photo by Universal Pictures - © 2019 Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.]

Critics and audiences have made much fun of Tom Hooper's Cats. The laugh is on them.

Tom Hooper

Universal Pictures

20 December 2019 (US)


I'll say it, as far as films about dancing cats go, Tom Hooper's film is definitely a film about dancing cats. Cats' inspiration is Andrew Lloyd Webber's live musical adaptation of T.S Eliot's collection of poems, and both mediums offer a playful commentary on social types within the entertainment industry, featuring a roster cats who perform (or audition) in hopes to be chosen (or cast) by Old Deuteronomy (or the director) into their next life (or role). The film also attempts to add a semblance of a light story...but it knows what it is: a bunch of people dressed as cats, singing, and dancing.

This is obviously ridiculous, but if you look past the spectacle and terrible CGI, these artists are doing really good work. Critics' and the public's mocking response to this film can be considered more broadly as a comment on what movie-watching has become. We know Cats is going to be ridiculous. We know we are going to see Dame Judi Dench, in cat make-up as Old Deuteronomy, deliver dialogue in earnest (with unsurprising integrity). Yet we scoff at the film as if we were expecting something other than... what we were expecting.

Although it has its detractors as well, apparently, the stage production can get away with a more serious critique of entertainment (and the relationship between actor and viewer). It's hard to laugh at a refined, Broadway performer while they stare you in the eyes, even if they are dressed head-to-toe in yak fur. You silently admire their wardrobe and commitment to the spectacle. But with film, the boundary between screen and audience allows a different expression of this awkwardness. We can laugh at them in their silly furry outfits! We can eschew introspection and indulge in the perhaps more "primitive" act of outward projection.

Maybe there should have been more fourth wall-breaking in the film, to let audiences know they're in on it, wink wink, but watching Sir Ian McKellen as Gus "meow" and lap up milk like a pro makes clear that Cats' meta-cognizance is intact. The film and the play are doing the same thing; they are meant to be fantastical musicals. What differs is how we think we should -- and can -- respond to the film format. One adaptation of Eliot's story is a revered, long-running stage production; the other is but a meme.

Dancers by hsvbooth (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

Webber recognized (and conceptualized) the bizarre "premise" and chose to play through it, with an exploration of theatre conventions and clichés. For example, cats is an anagram for cast, all of whom sing, "up, up, up past the Russell Hotel…" in harmony, as if that's their job. That's precisely what this musical is, the cast's job.

The Russell Hotel is an historic London building and a popular venue for artists; it makes sense that struggling artists would ascend beyond its 'rooftop' when/if cast by Old Deuteronomy in their breakthrough/comeback role.

Alternatively, as this hotel was a rumoured meeting place T.S. Eliot to carry out a love affair, Webber may be suggesting that his adaptation goes beyond the boundaries of Eliot's work and expectations, thus giving more purpose to the social commentary of each cat. Hooper's Cats mostly mirrors the allegorical format, but with Hollywood celebrities. You have to appreciate the level of confidence, humility, and self-awareness it takes to dance and behave like cats, and don't let the whiskers distract you; these are incredibly talented performers who know how ridiculous this is, but resolve to give 100% and have fun with it. So why not have fun watching them?

In the film, Grizabella the Glamour Cat is played by showstopper Jennifer Hudson, and her character allegorizes fears around mortality, loneliness, and aging. She is introduced in isolation from the rest of the cats/cast as a lost cause whose days of happiness (equating stardom?) are long gone. The character Victoria (played by Francesca Hayward) initiates the re-assimilation of Grizabella into cat society, awarding ol' Griz her yearned-for second chance, emphasizing the power of ensemble. When Grizabella has the spotlight, I almost forget I'm watching humans dressed as cats (almost). Hudson has compelling presence in this role. Interestingly, the scenes that feature Hudson's performances are the only moments when the audience in the theater with me was silent. Possibly enrapt.

Jennifer Hudson as Grizabella (IMDB) [Photo by Universal Pictures - © 2019 Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.]

Webber uses the character of Victoria, the white cat, to allegorize the audience's observation of the dear little, jellicle cats. And the film centralizes Victoria in its (loose) plot. It seems Hayward is an excellent dancer, but the editing makes it a little challenging to appreciate the choreography (which is what I was particularly excited about), and again, the CGI is questionably amateur. (Why the filmmakers didn't use more practical techniques to capture the dancing is inexplicable to me, but I am sure they have their reasons…)

The highest status is endowed upon Old Deuteronomy (the director) and Gus or "Asparagus" (the theatre cat). Dench and McKellan are adorable (if I may say that about a Dame and Knight, respectively). Only the most esteemed performers could play these cats both earnestly and with self-awareness of the absurdity of their roles, the film, and the industry. Dench's unrelenting eye contact with the audience and McKellan's meows dare the audience to laugh at itself. Since the play is an allegorical commentary on the spectacle of performance/entertainment, and the film is literally the play in movie format, if we laugh at the performance, we are laughing at ourselves.

And why shouldn't we? Can't life be a goof sometimes?

Danny Collins' Mungojerrie and Naoimh Morgan's Rumpleteazer absolutely delight. In Eliot's poem these characters create much mischievous havoc and get away with it. But in a production context, they are performers who are desperate for attention and will do anything to get it. You can't ignore their presence but you wish you could. Other cast members probably hate them.

Every production needs a Technical Director (and Special Effects team). Enter Laurie Davidson's Mr. Mistoffelees, who, in the film, is wholly responsible for returning the main character to the spotlight, through the magic of lights, effects, and his ensemble who believes in him. Effects really can rescue a production. Too bad, Hooper's CGI team missed that memo.

Idris Elba as Macavity (IMDB)

That cats/cast are terrified of Macavity (played in the film by Idris Elba), and they hide when they sense his presence and hear his intro music or cues. This cat is a predator in Eliot's poem as well, with lyrics about him that include, "Macavity's a mystery cat; he's called the Hidden Paw. For he's a master criminal who can defy the law…and when you reach the scene of a crime, Macavity's not there".

Macavity's choreography in the stage production is heavy-handed (heavy-pawed?), with an all-female, fear-evoking performance. As Macavity grabs one of the female cats and aggressively won't let her go, the rest of the ensemble covers their eyes. If they can't see him, surely he can't see them, either. Isn't that just like a cat?

The film takes a lighter route and has Elba portray a less drastic villain (if you can call sitcom-ish kidnapping less drastic). His manner a little more (you guessed it) ridiculous. Elba seems to have the most fun in this absurd role. Again, it takes confidence to be self-aware and still commit. Elba's performance asks the audience, "Are you self-aware, Audience of this Madness?"

These are humans dressed as cats. Isn't Taylor Swift ludicrous? How incredulous can we be about this? Folks, these are celebrities; the whole industry is already a ludicrous, no? Am I silly for defending this film? So what. I delighted in both the spectacle of the movie and the consistent (albeit mocking) laughs of the audience. At least we were laughing together for a while.

Following in the footsteps of Webber's adaptation, I think Hooper's Cats does a charming job of making a spectacle out of the audience.

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