Where do you even start with Cats? Tom Hooper's big screen version of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical is unlike anything you've ever seen before, but not in a good way. It's simultaneously nightmarish, creepy, disturbing and even, weirdly, boring. The fact that it's been rated U in the UK by the BBFC is frankly mind-boggling – it ought to be at least a 15. Indeed, woe betide any children that get dragged to this without knowing what they're in for, because that kind of trauma stays with you for life.
The film, like Lloyd Webber's 1981 musical, sticks close to the source material, in this case TS Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, a book of comedic poems about various flamboyant felines. The problem is that the book doesn't actually provide any plot, so the musical grafts on a bizarre story about a singing competition at the Jellicle Ball, whereby the Jellicle Cats sing songs to reveal who they really are and ancient cat judge Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) decides which of them will ascend to the Heaviside Layer (basically Cat Heaven) and be reborn into their heart's desire, or something.
Does the film, at any point, explain what Jellicle means? No, it does not, and that's just the beginning of its problems. From the moment it begins till the moment it ends, not a second of it makes a lick of sense. What sort of a world are we in anyway? Do these human-looking cats co-exist with actual humans? Why are they sometimes enormous and sometimes tiny, often within the same scene? Why does the cat-face make-up cover the entire face of some cats, but only come halfway down on others? Why do some cats wear clothes while others are naked? Why do the female cats have furry-but-otherwise-very-human-looking breasts? Come to that, why do all the male cats look suspiciously airbrushed in the genital area?
Incredibly, it gets worse. After a stultifying opening number that seems to go on forever, without so much as setting the scene or introducing a character, we meet the first of the cat contestants in the shape of Rebel Wilson's plump and lazy house cat, Jennyanydots. Her supposed comedy song is a terrifying nightmare from which neither the film nor the audience ever really recovers. It's bad enough that it features pint-sized mice with the faces of small children, but it also has humans dressed as cockroaches, doing a Busby Berkeley dance routine, until Jennyanydots swoops in and starts eating them whole. And that's without even mentioning the freakish visual of Wilson zipping open her catsuit to reveal that she's still in a catsuit, but with a colourful waistcoat on over it.
It couldn't get any worse than that, right? Wrong. There's James Corden, at his most irritating (and that's saying something), hamming it up a treat as Bustopher Jones, whose gimmick is that he's fat cat in a top hat and spats. Next comes Ian McKellen (looking like he's going to have a serious word with his agent) as Gus The Theatre Cat, who at one point is caught licking milk from a bowl backstage. And then there's Jennifer Hudson as Grizabella, a down-on-her-luck former glamourpuss who murders the musical's best known song (Memory) and appears to be covered in snot at all times. And let's not forget Dench, Old Deuteronomy herself, who strolls in wearing a fur coat and looking for all the world like the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz.
Spare a thought too for poor old Idris Elba, here reduced to playing the film's villain, the mysterious and sinister Macavity, who'll stop at nothing to ... err ... nobble the competition in the singing contest. At one point, Elba's Macavity also loses his catsuit, only to be revealed wearing an even skimpier, short brown haired catsuit underneath. It's not something you can unsee in a hurry.
There's only one point in the entire film where the whole thing actually feels like a proper musical and that's when Taylor Swift Cat (whose breasts are even more noticeable that everyone else's, like it was in her contract or something) literally drops by for one song (Macavity) and to dose everyone with catnip (not that they needed it). That's the film's solitary moment of actual fun – after that, Swift Cat disappears as quickly as she appeared and it's back to the horror.
In fairness, there is another highlight and that's the surprisingly sweet performance of Francesca Hayward, a principal dancer at the Royal Ballet in London's Covent Garden, here making her film debut. She plays Victoria, a character invented for the film, whose presence provides a useful way of meeting all the different cats in what passes for the plot. Somehow, she's the one cat who actually looks okay in the make-up, and her lovely, charming face is often the only thing worth looking at in any given scene.
That's not to say the film is worth seeing – it most emphatically isn't, at least not unless you're into bizarre self-torture or have a thing for furries (not that there's anything wrong with that, etc). Quite apart from all the crimes against cinema listed above, it's also poorly paced and badly lit, while the effects are continually distracting, to the point where you never actually get used to it. Similarly, not only do all the jokes fall painfully flat, but there's an awkward, excruciating silence that lingers after every one of them, as if everyone's waiting for Hooper to yell “Cut!”
On top of all of that, it's never even made clear how we're actually meant to feel about the cats. Are they supposed to be funny? Charming? Cute? Creepy? Sympathetic? Or even ... god forbid ... sexy? Whatever the answer, the fact remains that the CGI fur / catsuit approach the filmmakers have gone for was only the first in a series of cat-aclysmically poor decisions. What on earth were they thinking? The only thing that might have saved it would have been to make it as an animated film, a suggestion that was apparently rejected in the early stages of development. It would certainly have been less terrifying.