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Movie musicals have had a long history in the film world, originally helping to shape moviemaking, and still remaining a tried and true genre. Usually around this time of the year a movie musical will arrive in theaters hoping to accrue some Oscar nominations in the coming awards season. This year's entry is Tom Hooper's Cats, based off the record-breaking Andrew Lloyd Webber Broadway musical of the same name. However, while Hooper scored a whopping eight Oscar nominations and won three with 2012's Les Miserables, Cats won't have the same impact on voters or audiences.

Cats is based on the 1939 poetry book Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot. The story takes place over one special night a year when the Jellicle Cats assemble and compete to become the winner of the Jellicle Choice. That lucky kitty will get a new life, ascending to the Heaviside Layer a.k.a. Heaven. And as you probably guessed, the words "Jellicle" and "cat" are uttered countless times throughout the course of the story.

Cats is a show about dancing, and in that respect the movie version really delivers. The main ensemble of dancers kill it, making each of the big names look better as a result. But the movie went viral ahead of its release thanks divisive digital fur technology used to transform the cast into their feline alter egos, and the final result is just as bizarre as expected. You won't be able to look away, but you might wish you could forget the "memory" of Cats by the movie's end.

Despite its flaws, Cats is a fascinating visual experience. There's a strange cognitive dissonance happening, as human faces and forms are given digital fur. The actors also play with giant set pieces, meant to give them smaller appearances of cats. But the scale isn't quite right, and the digital fur technology is inconsistent depending on the scene and character involved. In fact, it ends up being the most distracting aspect of the new movie musical.

Cats’ Fur-Like CGI Is Inconsistent And Distracting,

In some shots, the transformation truly happens. An actor's face properly becomes more cat-like, allowing for a unique visual experience. But it really depends on which scene and which character is involved. Newcomer Francesca Hayward plays protagonist Victoria, one of the characters whose visual effects always look completed. As for the bigger names in the Cats cast, they didn't all fare as well. Jennifer Hudson's transformation never quite clicks. Taylor Swift's appearance is another that appears unfinished. That, or they want to give the pop star's fans ample times to connect with her during the character's brief role and didn't want the CGI to completely hide her.

With the digital fur technology so inconsistent, audiences will likely spend much of the time in theaters trying to figure out exactly what is off about Cats' visuals. It's a disservice to the cast, who are each trying to sell their respective solo songs in the movie. One has to wonder if doing the traditional Broadway makeup would have been a better choice. While this would obviously take a toll on the skin of the cast, it might have allowed the Broadway magic of Cats to properly translate to the screen.

The All-Star Cast Of Cats Fails To Become An Ensemble,

Tom Hooper assembled a killer group of actors to play the iconic roles in Cats. While Francesca Hayward will be a new (cat) face for moviegoers, there are plenty of big names attached, each with their own musical number. There are legendary talents like Judi Dench and Ian McKellen alongside Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson, Idris Elba, James Corden, and Rebel Wilson. Pop stars Jason Derulo and Taylor Swift round out the group for some extra star power. But despite all the talent, the group fails to ever truly become an ensemble.

It appears that it was a scheduling nightmare to get such big names together in the same room to film Cats, so it appears like Tom Hooper and company might have avoided this task altogether. Each big name shows up and introduces themselves, gets a song backed up by the dancers, and then fades back into the background. A subplot about kidnapping (catnapping?) is added to remind the audience that those names are even in the movie, as the various cat origin stories continue at the Jellicle Ball.

While it looks like Judi Dench was present during the big ensemble scenes, Cats' theatrical cut makes it seem like the majority of the starring cast recorded their numbers in private. As a result, the group of all-stars fail to gel together. The group mentality is vital to what Cats is as a Broadway show, and while the movie version keeps the dancers as a unit, the starring cast didn't have that same dynamic.

Cats The Musical Just Isn’t Right As A Movie

As I sat watching the movie version of Cats, I was struck by how difficult it was to connect to the material. Andrew Lloyd Webber is a legendary Broadway composer who has other hits such as Phantom of the Opera, Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Sunset Boulevard. The Broadway run of Cats lasted a whopping 18 years, and was the record holder for the longest running show. Clearly there's something special about the story that resonates with audiences, so why does it feel so strange in film form?

It's because it simply doesn't work in the medium. Cats has no real plot; each principal cast member pops up and sings a song-- eventually one of them is chosen to ascend into cat heaven. There's no real story to follow on the big screen. And while its not usual for dancers to wear flamboyant costumes and transform into a cat on stage, seeing people act like cats just isn't as effective here. The cats break the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience in the show, although Tom Hooper abandons this framing device and tries to craft a linear narrative out of the film. It's changes how the story is told, and creates some dissonance. Is this supposed to be a drama or comedy?

The main issue with Cats seems to be that it's a movie at all, as the task of adapting such a stylized and iconic Broadway musical into a film would be a challenging task for anybody. The cast, however separate from each other, puts on spirited performances-- and there are some moments of magic and joy throughout the course of the movie's 110 minute runtime. Jason Derulo is arguably the scene stealer of the movie, while both Judi Dench and Ian McKellen prove why they're legends. But overall, Cats is a wild theatrical ride that as bizarre as you'd think... and perhaps more.

3 / 10 stars
Rating: movie reviewed star rating out of five

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