Review – Coughing Up A CG Hairball (“Cats”)

If you’re like me and saw the trailer for this Broadway musical turned into a movie, you not only cringed, but thought it might have been someone’s idea of a practical joke. I mean, c’mon! Putting creepy, disturbing-looking CGI cat faces on actors? Seriously? Look, I’m all for realism, but there’s a limit, people.

Taking a Broadway musical and making it into a movie CAN be a good thing: Chicago, My Fair Lady, The Producers, Little Shop of Horrors, Fiddler on the Roof. Then again, it can also be a dumpster fire: Rock Of Ages, Hairspray, Annie, Phantom of the Opera, Rent, Beauty & The Beast. In the history of theatrical musicals, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s, CATS has broken many records. 21 years in London, 18 years on Broadway, 28 years in Canada, 20 years in Japan, and many more. That’s impressive! So why, oh dear God why, must they make a movie of it? One word: money!

Based on the poems of T.S. Eliot (Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats), the plot is childishly simple: late at night in London, a cat named Victoria (Francesca Hayward) is dumped-off in an alley by her master. Taken in by a tribe of alley cats, she is quickly schooled in what it is to be a Jellicle cat by their spokescat, Munkustrap (Robbie Fairchild). He tells her that that night, at the annual Jellicle Ball, one of them will be picked by Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) on who’ll ascend to the Heaviside Layer (what they call Heaven), and be reborn to a new life.

The rest of the night, each kitty sings & dances, telling Victoria who they are. Each one is unique and has a different blend of musical fusion. You have some really great numbers like Rum Tum Tugger’s (Jason DeRulo) hot jazz number in a milk bar, the hilarious overweight Bustopher Jones (James Corden) singing about girth, thieves Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer (Danny Collins & Naoimh Morgan) who get Victoria in trouble, the magical Mr. Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson), and my favorite, Gus (Ian McKellen), the old theater cat. But there are other numbers that fall flat, like Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson) singing with mice and eating cockroaches! Yuckk! While this is happening, Victoria notices Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson), a lonely street cat shunned by the others.

Meanwhile, in a subplot, a nasty cat named Macavity (Idris Elba) uses his own brand of magic to whisk away possible contenders to the Heaviside Layer, so he alone can be chosen. Yes, it’s a paper-thin plot and screenplay by director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) & Lee Hall (Rocketman), but Hooper, much like his movie adaptation of the Broadway musical Les Miserables, decided to pretty much stick with filming a stage version, rather taking the story and running with it, creating a whole new plot line and story arc. What’s the result? Depends on how much like CG effects.

Once you get past the creepiness factor of those CGI faces, ears, and wagging tails (and that’s a mighty big hurdle to get over!), you can appreciate two things: the music and the choreography. Many of the musical numbers are outstanding (Jennifer Hudson singing Memory is wonderful), while others are just meh. So goes the choreo. Some of it is mesmerizing, some of it is flat-out boring; mixtures of ballet, hip-hop, and classical Broadway are all thrown into the pot. Where’s Rob Marshall when you need him? Then you have the weirdness factor: the ‘cats’ have all-fur bodies, but human hands & feet? Only one wears pants? Mice are shown as disturbing little children in CG rodent costumes, and don’t get me started about them roaches! OMG!

There’s barely a plot at all, and for those (like me) who saw the stage musical, it’s like watching the very same thing, only with exaggerated, over-sized sets and  actors hidden under computer-generated facades. It’s not a BAD film, mind you, but it’s not gonna win the hearts of many, I can tell you that. The only good thing was Corden’s wickedly funny performance, Hudson’s vocal range, and Hayward’s angelic… er, kitty face. Plus, ya gotta give props to A-listers like Dench, McKellen, and Elba for even being in this experiment. I’m guessing this’ll be in the $10 DVD Walmart bargain bin in six months. 

Cats Don’t Dance (1997)

This animated musical was made by Turner Feature Animation. Never heard of it? Not surprised. They made only one other film (The Pagemaster) and then folded, merging into the more successful Warner Brothers Animation company. But for this one bright, shining moment in the sun, they produced a glorious star.

In a plot that’s been told a billion times, a star-struck nobody from nowhere wants to chuck it all, come out to Hollywood, and become a movie star! BUT in this case, it’s 1939 and this star-struck nobody is an animated kitty-cat named Danny (voiced by Scott Bakula). As luck would have it, he meets Pudge the penguin (Matthew Herried) and is signed on to be in the ensemble of Li’l Ark Angel, a new Hollywood movie starring the outrageously obnoxious child actress, Darla Dimples (Ashley Peldon). Danny learns from the studio’s old mascot, Woolie (John Rys-Davies), that human actors are normally given more important roles than animals; a fact that none of them are very happy with, but know they must accept.

Longing for the spotlight, Danny tries to steal the scene from Darla by padding his part on camera, infuriating Darla. However, Darla (while masking her true villainous nature with a sweet one) sings a great song (“Big and Loud”) on how to satisfy audiences. He takes this information to heart and groups the animals for an audition on the Ark in hopes of attracting the humans’ attention. But it’s a trap, and Darla, fearing that the animals are jeopardizing her spotlight, has Max help her flood the stage, blaming all the animals and having them fired for the watery collateral damage.

As Danny is about to leave town, his wanna-be feline girlfriend, Sawyer (Jasmine Guy) sings to him about keeping the dream alive and admits her love for him. They stay for the premiere of Lil’ Ark Angel, but after a battle with Darla’s ginormous valet, Max, Danny calls on his animal buddies to put on a show. As their musical performance wows the audience, Darla tries sabotage their show by tampering with the set and special effects equipment, but inadvertently makes their show even better! Furious at the animals, she accidentally confesses to having sabotaged the Ark stage! Her voice is amplified over the theater’s sound system thanks to a boom mic. The truth exposed, Darla is revealed for her true colors and her reputation destroyed, getting her just comeuppance.

Originally an animated CGI/live-action hybrid starring Michael Jackson, this movie was shelved and then revived after Jackson dropped out. Writers Roberts Gannaway, Cliff Ruby, Elana Lesser, Theresa Cullen wrote a pretty funny, if cliched movie about dreams, Hollywood, and standard prejudices and racism in film archetypes. Kinda heavy for a kiddie musical if you want to read into it, I suppose. But on the surface, it has a genuine charm and, surprisingly, some very catchy songs to gets your toes a’tappin’.

I’m guessing director Mark Dindal studied some of Robert Zemeckis’ animation style, as this movie has quite of bit of razzle-dazzle in its scope and flourish. Just look at Dindal’s next two films, Disney’s The Emperor’s New Groove and Chicken Little, and you can see what I’m talking about. And you also got one helluva voice talent as well! Kathy Najimy, Hal Holbrook, George Kennedy, the late Rene Auberjonois, Don Knotts, and the legendary Frank Welker.

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