Can we retire, or look for alternative phrases to describe, the phrase computer generated effects? Because it’s not computers that generate the uncanny look that ruins movies, it’s the people who operate the computers. Tom Hooper’s film of Cats has attracted a circle-jerk of critics keen to put the boot into one of his film version of one of musical theatre’s most venerable properties; aside from some regrettable uses of CGI, it’s pretty much exactly what any film of Cats would be expected to be like.
Without making any great claims for Hooper’s film, the people who hate this film wouldn’t have liked it if Christopher Nolan and Greta Gerwig had co-directed it; Cats is what it is, a twee slice of 1970’s musical theatre. One of the obvious reasons that Cats has not been filmed before is the lack of narrative; taking a cue from TS Eliot, the action of cats is really just a slew of famous people dressed as cats of different characters, introducing themselves and then vanishing.
Old-stagers like Judi Dench and Ian McKellen just about make their sections work, young bucks like James Corden and Rebel Wilson make fools of themselves; without a story to preoccupy us, there’s a train-wreck fascination about watching confident performers like Jason Derulo so far from their comfort zone. In terms of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score, Jennifer Hudson does well with the show-stopper Memory, but there’s three or four decent tunes here, with Magical Mister Mistoffelees landing well. And while celebrity casualties include Idris Elba and Ray Winstone, who deservedly crash and burn squarely with their genuinely awful work here, Taylor Swift really dominates the screen in her bit, and suggests that she could be a real musical-theatre star if the pop-star gig doesn’t work out for her.
Cats is something of a freak-show, but it probably doesn’t deserve to the butt of every joke. It’s a straight, reverential adaptation of a well-loved property that will appeal to and satisfy fans of the music. Rather than polish off their strained cat-based puns, critics might be better to let this kind of thing live-and-let-live; it’s a random collection of stars performing a random collection of songs in weird make-up. There’s a place for such a film, and it’s likely to be gifted and re-gifted between elderly relatives for many Christmases to come. But watching Jennifer Hudson perform Memory, it’s hard not to be distracted by her having a massive hairy torso like Geoff Capes. Perhaps the real problem for any film of Cats is that it puts the audience too close to the stage, as some things look better from the back of the dress circle.