For the benefit of anyone reading this in the years following the 2019 release of “Cats,” the film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage musical, there was actually quite a backlash at the time. Basically, an embargo on reviews of the film, led to a number of scathing reviews being released at the same time, disparaging the choices made in the adaptation, most notably for replacing stage costumes and make-up with computer-generated cat ears and fur, placing Edwardian London in the centre of the “Uncanny Valley.”
I decided to watch the film anyway, not put off by the reports of reviews, and mainly because I would rather make my mind up on such matters. It would be hypocritical for someone that writes about films to swear off a production based on what someone else wrote. I am so used to analysing films that I don’t much care if something is spoiled, because how those spoiled moments are reached may be just as interesting.
That said, “Cats” brings up an old British saying: “Oh my giddy aunt.” I need not describe one of the longest-running musicals of all time, only to say that the film version, directed by Tom Hooper of “Les Misérables,” presents exactly the adaptation you expected, with all that a film production can bring to it. The musical’s elements are all present, although the choreography is sometimes obscured by choppy film editing, and the performances are spectacular, because the best takes are included – Jennifer Hudson’s version of “Memory” is the highlight, of course, along with “Magical Mr. Mistoffelees.” It is more naturally filmic in presentation, which was a relief after previously seeing the flat, stagey direction of “The Producers” musical as a film – the blueprint is there in Arthur Freed’s productions at MGM, and “Cats” runs in that direction, armed with its synthesiser-primed orchestral score.
The amendments made for the film are to be expected. More locations can be used, with punning names for places littering the background like an episode of “The Simpsons,” and the actors are rendered to scale for those locations - you were always going to end up with something that looked like a cat version of “The Borrowers.” The computer-generated imagery is only noticeable because of what it is being used to create, which is necessary to tell the story without just making it a photographed version of a stage performance - one of those was already made in 1998.
As someone that never previously saw the musical, having just not been interested enough, the character of Victoria, originally silent, is boosted to become the lynchpin for the viewer, with Francesca Hayward making an impressive film debut. This addition is not unusual: Grizabella the Glamour Cat is not present in T.S. Eliot’s original collection of poems, but was added for the stage, based on work previously rejected by Eliot. Victoria is not a protagonist, and there is no attempt to overlay a story to link the original collection of song performances, but the presence of a focal point to which the viewer can return, after each cat sings their song, is necessary in a medium that, unlike the stage, relies upon the intimacy of closeups and mid-shots. Victoria’s new song, “Beautiful Ghosts,” by Taylor Swift and Andrew Lloyd Webber, did not feel tacked on, particularly contemplating “Memory.”
The only reason I have not addressed the “uncanny valley” situation is because I, personally, do not think it is important, as suspension of disbelief is necessary when taking in any fictional story, regardless of how it is presented to you – rather than having to mentally reconcile human-cat hybrids, I mainly wanted to stop hearing the word “jellicle” over and over again.
The concept of the “uncanny valley” is that, if a humanoid object imperfectly replicates an actual human being, it will provoke an unfavourable reaction, decreasing any possible affinity to the replica. However, because I was watching actual human beings throughout the film, the “uncanny valley” cannot exist in this case, unless you were expecting anatomically-correct real cats, with human voices. I prefer to think of it this way: Elton John, whose film “Rocketman” was written by “Cats” scriptwriter Lee Hall, performed what I think is the best version of his song “Bite Your Lip (Get Up and Dance!)” at his Central Park concert in 1980, a performance so forceful and energetic that you forget he is wearing a Donald Duck costume – he clearly suspended his own disbelief at that one too.