The first time I saw CATS was a lifetime ago at Starlight Theatre in Kansas City, Missouri. It was a stage play and started my love affair with the bizarre story and quirky music. Since then, I’ve seen it performed live on stage at least five times.
CATS is based on T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, and tells a story of Jellicle cats gathering together once a year to find out which one will be worthy to be selected by the Jellical leader to ascend to “the Heaviside Layer.” Andrew Lloyd Webber set the poems to music and, in 1981, created a theatre marvel.
Seeing CATS for the first time can be disquieting as nothing can fully prepare you for the spectacle you will see and hear. Grown men and women emboding the look and mannerisms of felines sing and dance their way into your psyche like nothing else. Both my daughters knew all the songs by heart by the time they hit ten years old. When done correctly, the performers are fully immersed in their character and you may actually forget they are just playing a part. The story is told, not by elaborate scenes and special effects, but through dance, body movements and voices of the performers.
Which brings me to 2019 film version of the musical. My oldest daughter and I were excited to take Peanut and Twix to CATS…introducing a new generation to our beloved story. Understanding the movie was going to be an “adaptation,” I braced myself and tried to have an open mind.
I tried. I really did. I was not very successful.
I’ve come to realize people go to see CATS as a stage play to be taken in by the beauty of the costumes, makeup, choreography, and movement of the human form. They certainly don’t go to hang on plot lines or be impressed with the latest CGI digital technology. In my opinion, this most recent film version relies too much on digitized makeup and fur as well as other extravagant scenes additions. It also takes liberties with the storyline by adding aspects not in the original story and changing character personas…maybe as an attempt to capture the attention of a new generation hooked on all things technology? I don’t understand why anyone would mess with the storyline. Would someone change the story line for The Phantom of the Opera? Or Evita? Or Jesus Christ Superstar? I think not.
So to not get in trouble with copyright infringement for photos, I’ll be using YouTube to make my points. Personally, for me, the digitized aspects were disturbing. It gave the appearance of superimposing a human face on a cat body. Below is a clip from the 1998 direct-to-video filming of the stage performance at the Adelphi Theatre in London. Note the costuming and make up of Munkustrap, the protector and narrator of the story.
Here is the official trailer for the 2019 film adaptation.
Victoria’s character was brought much more front and center in this movie with actual lines and a song…which is not in the original Webber score. In the original stage play, she is symbolic of innocence with her white coat contrasting against the wordiness and experience of the rest of the cats. With the absence of lines, the movements of her body conveys her story and position within the Jellicals. The movie version still portrays her as a doe-eyed, naive kitten, but the symbolism is lost with her costuming. There’s more changes to her character, but I’m not going to go into all of them here.
The rebellious, attention-seeking Rum Tug Tugger is another one I thought missed the mark in appearance and performance. In all the live productions I’ve seen, Rum Tug Tugger has more of a Mick Jaggar swagger and persona….the feel I think fell short in the film adaptation. The first clip is from the 1998 filmed stage play. The second is from the 2019 movie and only includes the audio. But, I think you’ll be able to instantly tell the difference.
I did not appreciate how the movie reduced Mr. Mistoffelees to a shadow of his original self. Confidence is replaced by self-doubt and hesitation, and he seems unsure of his magic and genuinely surprised when it brings Old Deuteronomy back from Macavity’s kidnapping. Below is my Mr. Mistoffelees….with an introduction by Rum Tug Tugger.
But, this most recent movie version is not without its positives. I thought Taylor Swift was masterful as the sultry Bombalurina and delivered a powerful performance. Her appearance is very short, but she nails it. She is also one of the few who can actually sing well. Perhaps the producers should have focused more on casting people who could sing the challenging score well rather than relying on big-star names and CGI effects to carry the movie. The addition of sprinkling the hallucinogenic catnip during her song about Macavity, the mystery cat, is brilliant.
The other highlight was the scene with Skimbleshanks, the tap-dancing railway cat. I’ve always loved the energy of this song and the expanded scene with tap-dancing Jellicals on the railway bridge backlit by the moonlight was one I did enjoy watching.
My verdict? Parts of it were entertaining. I, personally, didn’t like the changes in tempo for Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer’s song, which is one of my favorites. Here is my preference.
And, mercifully, they left out the Growltiger’s Last Stand song, which was fine with me. Jennifer Hudson’s Grizabella was done well, but her performance didn’t really make good use of her voice until the very end. Dame Judi Dench did a passable job as Old Deuteronomy, although in my mind, this part is better suited to a man. I kept thinking she looked related to the cowardly lion in the Wizard of Oz.
There was a lot of hissing and spitting as the critics panned this movie and I can understand why. To CATS purists, it falls waaaay short in both style and substance. At first I wondered if seeing the movie would spoil someone from enjoying the stage play. But, now I think it’s the other way around. Once you’ve seen the depth of the characters and experienced the magical atmosphere of seeing a live performance, no movie adaptation will come close to recapturing that same feeling. Unfortunately, most of today’s generation are not exposed to live stage performances, instead relying on extensive CGI animation and digitization for entertainment.
It’s a shame the movie has been met with so much bad press. I’m sure the performers worked very hard to master their cat personas, lines and choreography. Perhaps CATS was never meant to have a film adaptation of the story. Perhaps it’s too tempting for producers to try and “improve” it or make it “their own.” In truth, it needs no improvement.
In the end, the movie will end up losing money unless streaming rentals and DVD sales can make up for box office non-sales.
Appropriately, I’m linking up today with Feline Friday over at Brian’s Home.