Cats movie review

For F*** Magazine

CATS

Director: Tom Hooper
Cast : James Corden, Judi Dench, Jason Derulo, Idris Elba, Jennifer Hudson, Ian McKellen, Taylor Swift, Rebel Wilson, Francesca Hayward, Les Twins, Laurie Davidson, Robbie Fairchild, Steven McRae, Danny Collins, Naoimh Morgan
Genre : Musical/Horror
Run Time : 1 h 50 mins
Opens : 26 December 2019
Rating : PG

The following review might be unsuitable for children.

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage musical adaptation of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, a compilation of children’s poems by T.S. Eliot, became an unlikely sensation. The show had long runs on both the West End and Broadway, and now comes to the screen in a way that can be most succinctly described as a mistake. Almost all of it is a mistake.

Calling it a “story” is being generous, because Cats is not really meant to have a coherent narrative. The premise is that the Jellicle Cats (say “dear little cats” in a low voice, with a thick posh accent) gather for the Jellicle Ball, a ceremony wherein they sing a song about themselves and one of their number is chosen by the leader Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) to ascend to the Heaviside Layer, after which they will be reborn.

The plot is cat reincarnation X Factor, okay? That’s the plot.

The movie adds on a subplot about Macavity (Idris Elba), who kidnaps some of the other cats to increase his chances of being the Jellicle Choice.

Believe it or not, there are good things about Cats. Most of the changes it makes to the stage musical are baffling and highly counterproductive. However, making Mr Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson) the magic cat a soft boy with anxiety works for the story, even if the kinda-romantic subplot between him and Victoria (Francesca Hayward) feels forced.

Robbie Fairchild is good as Munkustrap, the de facto narrator – he was a principal dancer at the New York City Ballet who then became a Broadway star. Fairchild is one of the few performers in the show who sounds like they’ve undergone any actual musical theatre training.

Steven McRae, a principal dancer with London’s Royal Ballet who also dances tap, is a standout as Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat.

Dame Judi Dench can do no wrong and is weirdly dignified even when reclining somewhat seductively in a cat bed. Old Deuteronomy has always been played by a man, but the gender-flip works well. The few moments in the film that come close to being emotional are courtesy of Dench.

The choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler of Hamilton fame, building off the original choreography by Gillian Lynne, would have looked great if it were danced by actual humans and not the hybrid beasts we do get. Similarly, Hayward, a principal dancer with the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden, would have been mesmerising if it were her and not a strange fur-covered CGI approximation of her that were dancing the role.

Everything that makes Cats work as a theatrical production is rendered utterly null here. Even as theatre, Cats is divisive and widely mocked. However, it is a showcase of incredible physicality and athleticism and is, in many ways, purely experiential. You must be there to get it or even remotely think it works.

Some musicals are easier to translate to the screen than others – the ones best-suited to this transition are typically plot-heavy, because things are easier to follow in movie form. Cats never had any plot to begin with, so making a film adaptation is about as futile as herding, well, you know.

There was a 1998 filmed version of the stage show, which featured what pretty much are the standard John Napier costumes and scenic design one might see in a production of Cats. This movie has decided not to go with costumes at all.

It has decided to go with truly horrifying cat-human hybrid monsters.

It should go without saying, but human and cat physiology differ in many ways. However, human physiology is required to dance. As such, some aspects of the characters are very human-like, while others are cat-like. To quote another Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, “those who have seen your face draw back in fear”. It’s a face covered in digital fur, with cat ears sat atop it and whiskers above the mouth, yet the noses, lips and teeth are very human. One never quite gets over it.

You can see a performer in makeup and a leotard and accept that they’re playing a cat in the context of theatre, but this “realistic” approach almost twists the visual cortex and medial prefrontal cortex, the parts of the brain that recognise something as human. The scale is also wildly inconsistent, changing not just between scenes, but between shots. In some moments, the cats are the height of trash cans, and in others, three of them fit in a dumbwaiter.

The instrumentation is baffling, and a lot of it seems to be midi, when a movie has access to an orchestra full of real instruments since there aren’t the space limitations of an orchestra pit (or in the case of most productions of Cats, a little alcove hidden behind the set). A flailing effort is made to give some of the songs more of a pop sound, with snyth drums.

There is a new song written by Lloyd Webber, with lyrics by Swift, called “Beautiful Ghosts”. “If you can’t get T.S. Eliot, get T.S.,” Swift (jokingly?) declared in a behind-the-scenes promo spot with all the hubris of a White Star Line official saying the Titanic doesn’t need that many lifeboats. “Beautiful Ghosts” has some awful lyrics (including rhyming “wanted” with “wanted”) and is the movie’s featured ballad, but is performed by Hayward, who is not primarily a singer and struggles vocally.

There are so many ways this movie doesn’t work; it’s a veritable fancy feast. It doesn’t work on a design level, it doesn’t work as a musical, it doesn’t work as family-friendly entertainment and it doesn’t work as an adaptation of the stage show. It. Doesn’t. Work.

The cast is mostly awful. James Corden and Rebel Wilson are annoying, but you knew this already. Both Bustopher Jones and Jennyanydots are silly characters who should be endearing but are rendered irritating by performers that many audiences are already predisposed to disliking.

Jason Derulo is an embarrassingly bad Rum Tum Tugger, unable to enunciate any of the lyrics and never exuding the irrepressible rock star charisma demanded of the character. He makes the sexiest character in the show decidedly unsexy. Derulo complained about his penis being digitally removed, which a) were they all filming this naked? And b) that’s the least of his concerns, really.

It pains us to say that Jennifer Hudson completely butchers “Memory”, the one song from this most people know. She goes for the Anne-Hathaway-in- LesMisérables-style crying delivery, complete with mucus. It results in a screechy, sometimes-unintelligible delivery that wants to be emotional, but cannot because it is sung by an unholy human-cat monster.

Taylor Swift is awful – she doesn’t have the voice to sing musical theatre, and she adds a “sexy” affectation on top so it sounds even shallower than usual. She also puts on a bad posh English accent. Of everyone in this, she seems the most pleased with herself, the most convinced she is doing great.

Idris Elba’s villainous Macavity is never intimidating because, again, this is all ridiculous.

Sir Ian McKellen laps milk out of a bowl and says “meow meow meow” and comes away with his dignity way less intact than Dench’s.

The characters apparently have no assholes, so critics have been quick to tear Cats a new one. To quote yet another Lloyd Webber musical, they’re “Falling over themselves to get all of the misery right”. The thing is, yes, bad movies exist, but bad movies made by major studios that are bad in this many ways are a rarity. Many, many people had to approve the bad decisions that comprise Cats. Hundreds of people worked on this – visual effects artists were working on the movie even after it had been released, with a version with “improved visual effects” made available to theatres a week into its US release – polishing the kitty litter, if you will.

In a world of franchises, of focus groups and test audiences, of movies needing to play to four quadrants and in every market around the world, a fiasco on this scale is a precious, beautiful, horrendous thing to behold. It is viscerally distressing – you feel it in your very bones. Something this bad is typically made by bumbling would-be auteurs with delusions of grandeur: your Tommy Wiseaus, your James Nguyens, your Neil Breens. Not Oscar-winning directors.

Cats has brought forth the most entertaining reviews in a long time because it is awful in ways that movies just usually aren’t.

Summary: H.P. Lovecraft wrote stories about Eldritch abominations: stare at them for too long, or try to describe them, and one goes mad. Cats is the perfect Lovecraftian horror movie. The horror, the horror.

RATING: 1 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Sing

For F*** Magazine

SING 

Director : Garth Jennings
Cast : Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Seth MacFarlane, Scarlett Johansson, John C. Reilly, Tori Kelly, Taron Egerton, Nick Kroll, Nick Offerman, Garth Jennings, Peter Serafinowicz, Jennifer Saunders, Jennifer Hudson, Beck Bennett, Leslie Jones, Jay Pharaoh
Genre : Animation
Run Time : 1h 50min
Opens : 8 December 2016
Rating : PG

sing-posterIllumination Entertainment aims to unite all creatures great and small through the power of song in this animated musical comedy. Buster Moon (McConaughey) the koala is running out of options. After a string of flops, the showbiz entrepreneur’s theatre will soon be foreclosed upon. Moon and his business partner Eddie (Reilly) the sheep mount a singing competition to save the theatre. The contestants include harried housewife Rosita (Witherspoon) the pig, the flamboyant pig Gunter (Kroll) who is paired with Rosita, an arrogant jazz crooning mouse named Mike (MacFarlane), punk-rocker porcupine Ash (Johansson), stage fright-afflicted elephant Meena (Kelly), and Johnny (Egerton), a mountain gorilla who goes against the wishes of his criminal father Marcus (Serafinowicz) by pursuing his passion for singing. As Moon seeks the financial assistance of wealthy diva Nana Noodleman (Saunders), Eddie’s grandmother, this motley crew of animal performers must sing to save the theatre.

sing-group-shot

“Hey, let’s put on a show!” is a stock trope as old as Hollywood itself. To save an orphanage/theatre/hospital/school from being demolished, an unlikely group must draw on their talents and mount a fund-raising production. Babes in Arms, starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, codified this formula. Sing adds funny anthropomorphic animals and top 40 hits to the mix, but the results feel rote. Illumination Entertainment is quickly gaining on the big boys like Pixar and Dreamworks, what with the Minions taking over the world and all. Sing is the studio’s second film this year, following The Secret Life of Pets. Sing is probably Illumination’s most Dreamworks-like film yet, with its celebrity voice cast and surfeit of pop tracks. For a studio trying to set itself apart from the competition, perhaps that’s not the wisest move.

Sing suffers immensely for being released in the same year as Disney’s Zootopia. The design of Zootopia was thoroughly thought through, and each frame was bursting with clever, amusing details to notice. In Sing, anthropomorphic animals are plonked into a non-descript coastal city. While some might appreciate an animated film that isn’t hyperkinetic, Sing lacks dynamism and forward momentum. There’s a nicely staged set piece in the middle and the film’s climax is enjoyable, but Sing lacks the energetic visuals and propulsive pacing of Zootopia or The Secret Life of Pets. For a film with lots of dancing in it, it feels oddly static in parts.

sing-buster-moon-and-miss-crawley

As a tribute to old-fashioned movie musicals, Sing seems half-hearted at best, and the selection of songs isn’t especially inspired. There are shades of A Chorus Line and The Producers, but there’s no thematic cohesion to the musical numbers, and Sing often feels like an animated variety show with a bit of plot tacked on. If you roll your eyes whenever a cheery pop ditty shows up in a Dreamworks movie, prepare to cringe through a good amount of Sing. This reviewer did appreciate that Queen and David Bowie’s Under Pressure makes an appearance, when it seems more likely that the filmmakers would’ve gone with the Under Pressure rip-off Ice Ice Baby.

To accommodate the large cast of characters, most of the arcs are simplistic. McConaughey delivers an amiable, earnest performance, but seems miscast. There’s the dissonance of a Texan drawl coming out of a koala’s mouth – perhaps Hugh Jackman would’ve been a better fit, especially since Jackman has more of a slick, old-school showman vibe than McConaughey does. It might be difficult for kids to care about a character who can’t pay the electric bill to keep his theatre operational – there’s a difference between mature themes and adult worries.

sing-gunter-and-rosita

Rosita is the overtaxed stay-at-home mom who struggles to care for her 25 children and jumps at the chance to break out of her routine and embrace her inner diva. It’s a predictable arc and Witherspoon’s performance isn’t distinctive. MacFarlane’s character is smug and self-important, with a penchant for big band jazz – we can’t argue with that casting. Johansson’s Ash is spurned by her boyfriend and is out to prove that she can make it as a solo act – shooting quills into the audience while rocking out is pretty punk. Director Jennings’ cameo as Miss Crawley, a senile green iguana with a glass eye who works as Moon’s assistant, might not be a patch on Brad Bird as Edna Mode in The Incredibles but it has its moments.

sing-ash

The big revelation here is Taron Egerton of Kingsman: The Secret Service fame, who shows off some impressive pipes. We’ve often seen the archetype of a kid who marches to the beat of his own drummer, much to the chagrin of his parents – Johnny the Gorilla is not unlike Lenny from A Shark’s Tale, who wanted out of the mob headed by his father. The Cockney street tough accent sounds right coming out of a gorilla.

sing-johnny

If you were moved by Tori Kelly’s rendition of Hallelujah during the In Memoriam segment at this year’s Emmys, you’ll get to hear her sing it again here – never mind that the song is overused. Since Kelly is the one professional singer in the principal cast, it’s a shame that Meena sings as little as she does. Jennifer Hudson, as the younger version of Nana Noodleman, gets to open the film with a soaring rendition of Golden Slumbers, and then is absent from the rest of the film.

Sing isn’t just clichéd, it’s a gathering of lots of clichés in one place. If singing and dancing cartoon animals are all you’re looking for, then Sing has you covered – but then again, the history of animation is filled with singing and dancing animals. Sing has several entertaining sequences and a talented voice cast, but is too generic for its own good.

Summary: You know how this song goes: Sing’s “let’s put on a show plot” doesn’t offer any surprises, and will inevitably be compared to stronger animated films from this year.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong