Tom Hooper’s Cats, which we watched with a friend over Zoom in the early stages of lockdown, when we were young and full of hope, is one of those things that defies all logic, laws of physics and critical analysis. Its protagonist is a young cat called Victoria who’s abandoned by her humans and thrown on the tender mercies of the Big Smoke; she meets a gang of cats preparing for the legendary Jellicle Ball, at which one of them will be chosen to ascend (literally) to a new life. It’s a slender thread on which to hang two hours of musical theatre, as each cat introduces themselves to Victoria and sings the song they intend to perform at the Jellicle Ball – most of them poems from T.S. Eliot’s children’s collection Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, set to music with varying degrees of success.
Of course this is all based on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage show of the same name, but since my experience of that is limited to playing “Memory” very badly on the piano as a teenager, I can’t say whether the film’s hallucinogenic qualities are inherited or startlingly original. I can say that this is, unsurprisingly, a bad film. I don’t necessarily mean in the sense that it is plotless, or that the CGI that turns its big-name actors (Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Taylor Swift…) into giant cats with human faces is both ludicrous and vaguely horrifying; although both are true, they are both kind of…features rather than bugs, the things that make Cats what it is. No, what makes it a film that doesn’t work even on its own terms is the songs.
Look, this is a musical, right? Musicals rely on the emotion and sense of atmosphere that music is so good at providing. Especially a musical like Cats, which is not really about anything; it needs that music to provide emotional meaning where there is no semantic meaning. But vast stretches of the film are not even entertainingly bad but actively boring because: fifty per cent of the cast cannot sing; those songs that are competently sung are arranged so as to drain them of any musical interest whatsoever; and the CGI renders the choreography of ninety per cent of the songs airless and uninspiring, obscuring as it does the human effort of the actors involved. It’s like watching Fortnite characters dance: it might be nifty but you don’t want to spend two hours doing it.
I cannot name a single catchy song from the Cats film. Apart from “Macavity”, and I already knew that one. Even the numbers that should be fun – “Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer”, anyone? – are disappointingly affectless. The travesty of Cats is not that it’s campy, contentless and commercialised – it’s that it’s boring, as no musical about singing animals should be.