With the release of Disney’s epic rendition of “Lion King,” another cat-classic hit the internet with an astounding first trailer. Broadway musicals are finally making the transition to the big screen, and “Cats” is out to prove that the wait was worth it. But, was it?
Based on T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” the musical’s plot doesn’t stray too far from its title — it’s about cats. Cats with long fur and short fur and top hats and ladykiller attitudes, cats that sing and dance and sass and sometimes all at once.
More specifically, it’s about a tribe of “Jellicle” cats whose leader picks the best cat to ascend into a new life. Andrew Lloyd Webber uses Eliot’s book as a blueprint for most of his kitty characters. The awe-inspiring composer set music to the poems, while the creating team directed, clothed and choreographed the show to life.
An odd hit from the start, “Cats” was the start of Broadway’s “British invasion,” which brought extravagant musical stories to the theater. It opened at London’s West End in 1981 and completely sold out for months.
The show arrived in New York the following year, infamously causing the Winter Garden Theater to cut into the roof to make room for the ginormous junkyard set. Based on the buzz in England, “Cats” became one of the largest advance sales in Broadway history, causing a two-decade fascination with all fanciful and British theater.
The revival comes courtesy of Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper, and his previous work with “Les Misérables” makes him the perfect candidate. With the help of modern technology, Hooper filmed scenes of the movie and then assembled a team to animate fur onto their bodies.
The seemingly simple technique proves we’ve come a long way since the clunky motion capture suits of “Avatar” and “Polar Express.” He also ensured the best of the best are on the project with “Hamilton” choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, who illuminated the set with original and spicy shifts of motion.
Along with an excellent team, Hooper spent a lot of time on the set. They made each set piece large enough so that the actors would appear “cat size,” prancing through lifelike streets, stores and homes. There are scenes where cats play with jewelry, hold large utensils and play with mouse traps; the oversized props give the illusion that they are cats, but they act and look just enough like people to provide a unique contrast. Overall, the sets in the trailer beam with magic and wonder and Hooper’s all-star cast is the cherry on top.
To understand the full talent of the “Cats” armada, look no further than to Royal Ballet dancer Francesca Hayward, who will be playing Victoria the White Cat. Following her are an array of famous and talented dancers, along with a collection of recognizable stars. Taylor Swift plays Bombalurina, Judy Dench is Old Deuteronomy, Ian McKellen is Gus the Theater Cat, Idris Elba is Macavity and James Corden, Bustopher Jones.
They are accompanied by a few interesting choices that only raise your eyebrow until you realize they’re perfect for their roles. Rebel Wilson of “Pitch Perfect” is Jennyanydots, and Jason Derulo makes his film debut as Rum Tum Tugger. Finally, Jennifer Hudson plays the show-stopping Grizabella, her song “Memory” backtracking the trailer and leaving audiences starstruck.
The trailer itself is something of a strange item. Hudson’s voice echoes through the streets as the anthropomorphized felines dance in a variety of fashions. Audiences are immersed in a world of ballet with both classic and modern influence, including breakdancing, salsa and freestyle. A few clips at the “Milk Bar” hint at the aesthetic of Drake and other popular artists, while others show Hayward showing off her enchanting twirls.
Following are these moments of freestyle dance — parts I could identify as intense twitching — that are, well, different, but still captivating. The trailer is timed well with dancing, drama and comedy, but the style of animation has caused quite a stir. All in all, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what to feel about it.
If “Cats” is anything, it is incredibly ambitious. Besides the intensive labor of an all-dance show, the deepfake-style CGI is something of a test run. For a lot of people, that run REALLY fell short. Some critics mentioned how “Avatar” (2009) looked significantly better, and it came out 10 years ago.
It’s almost like the film industry is regressing. The oversaturation of CGI has plagued the last few years of cinema and ruined what could’ve been some exceptional movies, quite recently, the new “Aladdin” and the intense backlash over Will Smith’s Genie which, once again, brought up the debate of uncanny valley.
Uncanny valley implies that at a certain point, something made to be so realistic could come off as odd and even creepy. In the case of Genie and even Sonic the Hedgehog, people were obviously displeased. With “Cats,” one reaction implied that the cats resembled “Mike Myers’ live-action adaptation of ‘Cat in the Hat’ shot through the lens of a Snapchat filter.”
While most choose to agree with the shared claim, it’s important to consider the campiness of the story. I mean, it’s about a bunch of people dressed as cats dancing and having fun.
The uncanny valley critique might not apply to this because the actors are supposed to look anthropomorphized, not completely feline. If they had or even had the more genuine look like “Avatar,” it would lose a crucial element, much like the new “Lion King.” Viewers couldn’t relive emotional scenes because it was too realistic and held little to no expression. Yes, the fur technology falls short, but it’s a subtle strength.
Unfortunately, the film has also been accused of “white-washing.” Hayward is a woman of color playing a white-furred cat, and it’s unnerved a few important people. However, Hayward’s character is Victoria “the White Cat.” Other stars of color play cats with no specific fur labels and are coated in darker fur, so while this is still a crucial conversation to have in cinema, it’s not necessary here.
A final argument offered is that it might just be an extended music video, and it very well could be. There’s not much to the story, and the musical has two acts. It should be expected that “Cats” isn’t exactly plot-driven.
But what it lacks in story it gains in beautiful performing arts. The major perk of a film is that the stage is much larger for the project to work with, so stunts like Corden’s seesaw jump are more possible to accomplish with significantly less stress than on a Broadway stage.
The “Cats” trailer is one to raise eyebrows and various questions, but personally, I am completely mesmerized. With the choreographer from “Hamilton,” the dancing is remarkable, and I’ll admit to replaying a few stunning moves. And with Hudson’s cover of “Memory,” a new day has begun for Broadway, and the film will be the purr-fect choice for musical and film lovers alike.