Taylor Swift as Bombalurina in “Cats.”
“Cats” seemed to have it all — a stellar cast, memorable music from a Tony Award-winning Broadway show and the careful guidance of acclaimed director Tom Hooper.
Then the first trailer dropped.
While Hooper had said he planned to ditch the iconic costumes from the Broadway show, few were prepared for the “digital fur technology” that appeared in the two-minute trailer or the nearly two-hour movie.
“Oh God, my eyes,” Ty Burr, a writer for the Boston Globe, wrote in his review of the film.
“You’ve heard of the ‘uncanny valley’ effect?” he wrote. “The eeriness or revulsion felt when looking at a humanoid figure that’s not quite human? The digital era has given us many examples of the uncanny valley, but ‘Cats’ is the first movie to entirely set up shop there.”
Currently, the film holds a 17% “Rotten” score on review site Rotten Tomatoes from 101 reviews, as of midday Thursday.
Although, it seems, that the visual design of the film wasn’t the only thing that critics didn’t like. The plot of the musical was always thin, but the music and dancing were mesmerizing enough to distract from the small thread that connected all the songs together.
In the film, Hooper used Francesca Hayward, a Royal Ballet dancer, as Victoria, a young cat who famously does a ballet-inspired solo dance during the show, as the main character. The audience follows her through the streets of London, learning about the Jellicle tribe of cats that inhabit the rooftops and alleys and about the Jellicle Ball, an annual festivity for the cats.
James Corden as Bustopher Jones in “Cats.”
The film is based on “Cats,” a musical composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber (“Phantom of the Opera”). The musical is based on T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” a book of poems about cats. Webber’s musical debuted in 1981 and took home the Tony for best musical.
The cast that Hooper assembled for the 2019 reimagining is an impressive one. Taylor Swift, Rebel Wilson, Judi Dench, James Corden, Ian McKellen, Idris Elba, Jason Derulo and Jennifer Hudson are set to star alongside some of the world’s greatest dancers.
However, it appears that the star power wasn’t enough to woo critics.
“To assess ‘Cats’ as good or bad feels like the entirely wrong axis on which to see it,” Alison Willmore, of Vulture, wrote. “It is, with all affection, a monstrosity.”
Here’s a rundown of what critics have said of “Cats” ahead of its Dec. 20 opening:
Ty Burr, The Boston Globe
The stylized computer-generated fur that Hooper and his team added to actors and dancers in post-production didn’t have the “whimsy and wonder” that was intended, Burr wrote.
“The faces seem to eerily float atop the faux fur, never quite jelling into one plane of vision,” he wrote. “Some cats wear clothes, some don’t; all are, um, neutered.”
In addition, the dance numbers, which made “Cats” a sensation were sloppy and hard to follow, Burr noted, giving the film half of a star out of four.
“If the choreography were better, or if Hooper filmed it in a way that made any sense, the dance numbers in ‘Cats’ might serve as the film’s highlight. But he’s of the school that believes the camera should move as much as the talent, and there’s no pattern or inner logic to the bodies flying back and forth, some via unconvincing wire-work. Also: The bit with the synchronized tails is just plain creepy.”
David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter
Despite big Broadway and Billboard names, “Cats” musical numbers fell flat for some critics. David Rooney, of The Hollywood Reporter, noted that Jennifer Hudson’s performance in the film leaves much to be desired — and she is the one who performs the musical’s biggest number.
“Jennifer Hudson tirelessly over-emotes in the role; she limps around hemorrhaging snot and looking either miserable or terrified, like she’s been watching the dailies,” he wrote. “She blubbers her way through ‘Memory,’ letting loose all her considerable lung power for the big-ass key change on the phrase ‘Touch me.'”
Rooney did not provide a rating scale in his review
“… if you recoiled back then at the sight of British acting royalty with their faces stuck onto little furry bodies, or even just the jarring image of cats with human breasts, chances are you’ll still be covering your eyes and peering in a profoundly disturbed state through the gaps between your fingers at the finished film. At least until boredom sets in.”
Francesca Hayward as Victoria in “Cats.”
Kerry Lengel, Arizona Republic
“I didn’t hate it,” Kerry Lengel, of the Arizona Republic, wrote in a review Wednesday. It is one of only a few critical reviews that are considered to have a positive tone on Rotten Tomatoes.
“I mean, I expected to,” Lengel continued. “I tried to. From the first garish notes of ’80s synth, I was retraumatized with all the other relentlessly catchy Lloyd Webber melodies that have barged into my brain over the years. A true master of pastiche, the composer of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar,’ ‘Evita’ and ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ hasn’t had an original musical idea in his life, but he sure knows how to write an ear worm.”
Lengel gave the film three out of five stars, noting that he was “charmed in spite of myself” by the film.
“What I didn’t expect, though, was just how weird ‘Cats’ is. It’s surreal, hallucinatory, and mostly in a good way, I finally decided. Despite the backlash over director Tom Hooper’s use of “digital fur” when the trailer came out, the CGI-enhanced costumes work pretty well, and there’s a real ‘Alice in Wonderland’ feel to the oversize sets (from fancy Victorian sitting rooms to the trash-filled alley).
Johnny Oleksinski, The New York Post
Johnny Oleksinski, of The New York Post, also found the singing and dancing of “Cats” to be lackluster. Hooper, who directed an adaptation of “Les Miserables” in 2012, once again relied on live singing instead of pre-recorded audio.
While Swift and Derulo shined, others “are barely passable, with wobbly voices that struggle to stand out or blend,” he wrote.
He, too, noted that Hudson’s performance of “Memory” was shaky and overburdened with awkward sobs.
Oleksinski gave the film one star out of four.
“A word about the dancing. Original choreographer Gillian Lynne died last year, but left an indelible mark with musicals such as ‘Cats’ and ‘Phantom of the Opera.’ Her choreography for this show was a perfect mix of animalism, ballet and modern movement. But much of it has been jettisoned for Andy Blankenbuehler’s (‘Hamilton’) more organic street dancing. It’s not only a shame that Lynne’s famous work wasn’t immortalized on-screen, but Blankenbuehler’s new moves are a snooze. He turns ‘The Jellicle Ball’ from a showstopper to a watch-checker.
Disclosure: Comcast, is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC. NBCUniversal distributed ‘Cats.’ Comcast also owns Rotten Tomatoes.