Like most of the internet, I hadn’t heard about the Cats movie until the backlash began. Unlike most of the internet, I kind of love the trailer for this film. As you probably know, it’s based on the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical that debuted in London’s West End 1981 and, yes, there’s a lot of weird shit going on.
But that’s the point of Cats: It’s an assemblage of grown adults painted like felines, with names like Skimbleshanks and Mr. Mistoffelees, singing and dancing and jumping around in preparation for a fictional cat ball. If you have a problem with that level of silliness, all I have to say is: Where were you all hiding out when Arya started turning into whole-ass other people after stealing their faces on Game of Thrones? Please explain to me how this specific game of dress-up makes less sense…. Anyway, you can take it up with the source material: The collected poems published in T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats were written for children.
Directed by Tom Hooper, the Oscar-winning force behind such high-brow hits as The King’s Speech and The Danish Girl, Cats is scheduled for release on December 20, 2019. (If that date sounds familiar, it’s probably because the new Star Wars movie also hits cinemas that day. May the force be with you, Cats.) All your faves will be making appearances, including Jennifer Hudson as Grizabella, Taylor Swift as Bombalurina, Rebel Wilson as Jennyanydots, Idris Elba as Macavity, and our supreme goddess of stage and screen, Dame Judi Dench, as Old Deuteronomy.
Can we all just agree the whiskers are supposed to be there?
Much of the criticism of the Cats trailer seems to concern the humans-dressed-as-cats—specifically, their digital fur. And while I’d love to get into the complexities of convincing fur textures (see Paddington vs. Paddington 2), my visual effects artist boyfriend is at work. So I’ll stick to the point: The look is dramatic and ridiculous and thoroughly consistent with the musical—and that’s exactly why it works. At least, it works if you want to recreate the experience of a stage show.
Musical theatre is built on oversized everything: giant smiles, overdrawn eyebrows, exaggerated gestures, Frasier-esque enunciation. On stage, you’re performing for the back row; you have to be larger than life to make an impression. It works in the theatre, but doesn’t always translate so easily to film. If you’ve ever cringed through home video footage of a middle-school play, you get it. Suddenly the stage is too big and the performers are too small, and those big facial expressions are flattened into garish caricatures.
That’s why simple stage makeup and leotards wouldn’t work for the Cats movie; it would look like amateur hour. CG fur is the most appropriate solution given the technology we have. Besides, it’s not full-on live-action Lion King style CG: We still get to see Dame Judi and co. dancing and emoting, just as they would on stage, with that spectacular, fanstastical, borderline trippy human-as-cat look that makes this musical so weird and delightful—and that’s no small feat to recreate for the screen.
An audience can make or break a show, so it only sucks if you want it to suck
Stage productions are about shared moments between audiences and performers—there’s an intangible energy exchange that makes every live performance unique. Performers feed off this energy; a good audience has the power to improve a show, while a bad audience can sink it. To see a film production capture this magic of the stage as accurately as Cats—at least, based on this first trailer—isn’t just exciting. It’s a spectacular achievement in production design.
From the opening shots—the lighting, the smoke in the air, the slow build of those familiar notes, the neon colour palette—to the final choreography in Trafalgar Square, this trailer evokes the wonder of musical theatre: the catch in your chest, the sense of being part of something bigger. It’s full of theatrical cues that should remind us to suspend our disbelief.
The problem is, no one on Twitter is taking those cues. And maybe that’s because it’s Cats. This is a show that has never been cool, even among musical theatre nerds—hell, *especially* among musical theatre nerds. For years, Cats has existed primarily for children and out-of-towners and people who have recently dropped acid. Who else would allow themselves to be emotionally eviscerated by an ensemble of dancers with tails?
Not to sound dramatic, but the future of musical theatre depends on this
But it would be a damn shame to let such a promising adaptation get away so easily. Musical theatre nerds are a limited group: limited by privilege, because neither attending nor performing in musical theatre comes cheap; limited by societal norms, because until Moulin Rouge came along, musical theatre was widely considered uncool; and limited by an elitism that prizes certain shows over others.
My mom (who saw Cats in its first West End run, tysm) has been bringing me to musicals my whole life—Cats was one of the first. I was a shy kid without siblings, and making friends didn’t come easy. So, with my interest piqued—yes, by the bizarro singing cats—my folks enrolled me in Burlington Student Theatre, an incredible program that’s been running in Ontario for over 40 years. I sucked at dancing, and I *really* sucked at singing, but the founder and program director, Rainer Noack, never let me hide in the shadows.
In an interview with the Hamilton Spectator, Noack said that students “gain confidence, strength and transferable skills.” That was certainly true for me. It took a while to find my voice, but through musical theatre, I learned how much I wanted to use it.
And you don’t have to perform to reap the benefits of musical theatre nerd-dom. According to the Canadian Arts Presenting Association, 90% of Canadians believe in the personal benefits of attending performing arts. Musical theatre serves the greater good, too—80% of Canadians say that live theatre improves a community’s vitality.
But not every community has a space for performing arts, or a program like Student Theatre. The recent trend towards musical films—especially those designed to evoke the theatre—opens this limited world to a wider audience. For many grown-up musical theatre nerds, that’s exactly what Cats did in the first place. So instead of protesting this movie, maybe let’s celebrate a new generation receiving their first invitation to the Jellicle Ball.
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