Litter-ally terrifying: is Cats the creepiest film of the year?
“This Christmas, you will believe.” With these words, Universal sent its first trailer for Cats out into the Twitterverse – and if a cagier strapline has appeared in modern movie marketing, nothing comes immediately to mind. Don’t believe it now? Fine, you have until Christmas. One the one hand, it sounds a bit like a threat. On the other, maybe it’s more of a plea. “We know it’s a lot to take in right now, but give it a few months: you’ll believe, we promise!”
To be fair, they have reason to, er, pussyfoot in their approach: a film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s eternally uncool but commercially deathless musical has been something of an industry joke for decades, most famous, of course, as a symbolic punchline in John Guare’s Upper East Side bourgeoisie satire Six Degrees of Separation. Since then, the essential naffness of Cats – the earnestness of its reconstituted TS Eliot poetry, combined with the clumsiness of its human-feline costumes – has served as satirical fodder in everything from The Simpsons to The Critic to Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. It’s easy to be cynical about a Cats movie, then, in large part because a Cats movie seemed an absurd impossibility for so long. For all the popularity of its artifice-heavy stage treatment, there didn’t seem to be a workable way of filming a show entirely about cats, but conveyed entirely through human emotion, expression and movement.
Who could have guessed that 2019 would be the year to take up this challenge twice over? Tomorrow, Disney’s much ballyhooed “live-action” remake of The Lion King hits cinemas, with its photo-real but computer-generated big cats improbably shaping their mouths around Elton John’s rousing score score. In terms of online buzz, however, its thunder has almost been stolen this week by Cats, finally brought to the screen by the Oscar-winning British director Tom Hooper. It won’t be in cinemas until December, but a calculated one-two punch – yesterday, a gushing behind-the-scenes featurette, today the official trailer in all its gaudy neon-lit glory – has held the internet rapt in semi-morbid fascination.
At last, in two short but overwhelming minutes, the question of “how the hell do you make a movie of Cats” has been answered: by slathering an all-star cast that seems to have been assembled through a particularly manic game of Mad Libs (Judi Dench! Jennifer Hudson! Taylor Swift! Idris Elba! Jason DeRulo?) in a generous coat of much-vaunted “digital fur technology” and building extravagantly outsize sets on which they leap and bound and perform thoroughly humanoid choreography. They’re people! But they’re also cats! So the cast member James Corden muses in wonderment in the making-of blurb – he believes, but will we?
If the reaction to the trailer so far is anything to go by, the jury is not so much out as agog: in these difficult, polarised times, the internet appears to have miraculously united in a chorus of “what the hell was that?” Returning to the expensive mode of bombast that saw him make a smash hit out of another slow-to-the-screen musical, Les Miserables, Hooper appears to have fashioned the shonkily home-sewn aesthetic of the stage show into a lurid, gleamingly synthetic fantasia of distorted Victorian streetscapes and Metropolis-like milk bars.
Yet even the Blade-Runner-meets-Cath-Kidston production design recedes into the background when set against the cats themselves, an ensemble of famous faces eerily superimposed onto lithe hybrid physiques: distinctly human facial features crowned by jaunty cat ears, dancing human limbs and pert derrières disconcertingly giving way to long, snaking tails. Vivid but not tactile, they’re at first glance neither fish nor fowl, let alone feline. Indeed, they look no more persuasively cat-like than the elaborately face-painted stars of the stage show, however much more state-of-the-art their unsettling furry disguise – which is enough to make you wonder whether old-school costuming and makeup wasn’t the way to go on screen after all. Cue your best Jeff Goldblum impression: “Scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
It’s a sight disorienting enough to distract you from the trailer’s soundtrack, Hudson’s typically full-blooded rendition of the show’s signature ballad Memory. A pretty, wistful reflection on ageing and dilapidation, it sounds beamed in from another universe to the bright, restless, look-at-this-stuff showmanship of the trailer, eager as it is to flash as much of its elaborate novelty as possible in 140 seconds. That’s the rub of trailer editing, of course: whether the film itself will successfully find feeling in its uncanny-valley spectacle very much remains to be seen, though it’s off to a bewildering, even creepy, start.
This weekend, we’ll learn whether mass audiences will take singing digital lions to their hearts, despite a chorus of critics’ complaints that the film’s visual effects are almost too evolved for purpose: its wild beasts look so realistic, so animalistic rather than man-like in their facial movement and body language, that they can’t speak, much less sing a song as sappily human as Can You Feel the Love Tonight?, without setting the film’s meticulously constructed universe off-kilter. Cats faces a different challenge: can its deliberately stylised unreality let us in? Amid the general floaty plotlessness of the material – it’s no Les Mis, put it that way – will audiences emotionally invest in these abject, unearthly creatures, either as cats or as extensions of ourselves? Either way, in the words of Hudson’s oddly lipsticked Grizabella, a new day has begun.