Make no mistake, director Tom Hooper’s Cats adaptation takes freaky to a whole new level. The whimsy premise belies a much more sinister underworld, where the human-cats sing and dance to the sounds of ecstasy and desperation. However, the film is marred beyond repair by a pompous sound design that drowns out the already tacky special effects and story behind it. In many senses, it’s a horror film.
The tale follows the abandoned Victoria (Francesca Hayward) who finds herself in a strange tribe of cats all desperately hoping to be the chosen Jellicle. They teach her that the contest allows the Jellicle cat to be reborn. The telling of the story through Victoria borders on nauseating as she becomes a mirror onto which the other cats reflect their own selves and issues. She is seen most frequently being pushed and prodded into various scenarios, such as when she becomes a groupie for Jason Derulo or when the twin cats influence her to steal. As the plot balloons into outlandish proportions, so too does Victoria’s frailty.
To categorize Cats as a horror film will shock those who expect a light-hearted remake that features the likes of James Corden and Taylor Swift—both of whom are minor side characters that outshine even the great Judi Dench. But the musical is a surreal terror, and the traumatic visuals are but a slice of it. Show this to any kid out there, and they will be guaranteed nightmares of undulating, muscular human-cats. The costumes and special effects are ghoulish in that they are both over-the-top and too life-life at the same time.
The musical score solidifies the film’s menacing tone with sounds like stretched-to-the-brim accordions and electronic harp chords hanging dubiously in the silence between dialogue and song. Particularly, whenever Idris Elba’s villainous Macavity cat slinks into the scene, the music works perfectly in tandem with his rich voice and hypnotically altered neon eyes. It helps, too, that his cat suit is mostly obscured by a trench coat and hat.
But Cats commits a grave blunder: many of the songs are unintelligible. One has no idea what these cats are singing about in the first place. Time after time, the music swells above the singing voices, many of which are thin and unimpressive to start, then swamp over the supposed story being told. Without Victoria’s huge and expressive eyes or Jennifer Hudson’s showmanship, it is hard to know anything beyond snippets of stolen dialogue. The story for the characters is about reclaiming your personhood in a sea of chaos, but the sensory overload for the audience offers no solace in sight.
The dire proof is in the pudding, especially in the climactic scene of Hudson’s Grizabella the cat. She’s sad and diminished and poor in spirit, but Victoria urges her to sing, and she begins to belt out the iconic “Memory”. But again, the music overwhelms even Hudson’s commanding voice. It’s a travesty to the name of musicals, as well as a shame to Hudson who brings the lion’s share of soul to a seemingly soulless portrayal of gluttonous, tacky, and eerie cats.
In other words, Cats conquers by means of the shock and awe and overpower factor. But given this story is already one of the longest running Broadway productions, maybe it should have let sleeping cats lie.