Sunday, April 21, 2024

How ‘Cats’ Will Save Our Cultural Soul (or at the Very Least Amuse Us)

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It’s been three days since I saw the trailer for Tom Hooper’s Cats and I still haven’t recovered-and neither has the internet from the looks of it. Personally, I think it’s hilarious. In an era in which Tom Cruise, the biggest movie star in the world, came to SDCC only to be blown out of the water by Tom Hooper’s mix of live-action and computer-animation adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s fever dream of irony-free sincerity and cats, is nigh on miraculous.

Look, I haven’t seen Cats but after seeing the trailer it quickly jumped up to my number three most anticipated film of the year. Blinded by the Light, Gurinder Chadha’s ode to Bruce Springsteen currently holds the number one spot, with Elizabeth Banks’ Charlie’s Angels at number two. I tell you this so you understand the reason it didn’t immediately jump to number one is because of the impossible hurdles of The Boss and K-Stew. (See Personal Shopper.)

Part of my excitement is the very real possibility in which Cats could crash and burn in a spectacular fashion. Tom Hooper directed the 2012’s screen adaptation of Les Miserables in and 2010’s The King’s Speech. Cats, as it’s always been, is different.

The longest-running show on Broadway, Cats is a musical about cats and nothing more. It is a rare story where the text is the text and nothing else. The legendary producer Harry Prince upon hearing Webber’s music confessed confusion and immediately tried assigning subtext and meaning to the musical. Webber merely shook its head, “It’s about cats, Harry.”

But all of that is beside the point. My real excitement for Cats is because well, I asked for it damn it. I spend a lot of time bemoaning the lack of originality, risks, and new images infesting modern Hollywood. While Cats may be an absurdly long-running popular musical it is still relatively unknown outside of the musical theater community. General audiences have no idea what they’re in for – and that’s exciting.

Whether Hooper’s Cats succeeds or fails is something we’ll have to judge when it comes out. But we live in a time where a major studio has released a computer-animated musical starring famous actors, comedians, and entertainers, as the voices of the animals of the African Serengeti, Disney’s The Lion King, with guest director Jon Favreau.  Favreau, or rather Disney, pushed the boundaries of modern cinematic technology-broke them is more like it. Except unlike Cats, The Lion King has an almost slavish dedication to of all things, realism. The result is gorgeous with a hint of nightmarish fuel for the animals are so real they have no emotions.

On the other hand, it appears Hooper ran as far away from realism as he could get and found an altogether new nightmare. He has, instead, embraced surrealism-or better yet magical realism. Or is it magical surrealism?

Either way, I said this in my defense of Valerian and the City of 1000 Planets, it doesn’t behoove me to spend all this time crowing about the lack of creativity only to harumph and complain when I actually get it-however imperfect it might be. Valerian is imperfect, you’ll get no argument from me, but the visuals are so stunning and arresting I found the enterprise worth it. Cinema is, after all, about images.

Favreau’s mistake was believing we wanted images so closely resembling life we would confuse them for real life. Except, The Lion King isn’t a documentary. The animated The Lion King is made up of lush colors and poetic imagery. The scene where Scar stands above the mass of hyenas as they march before him in a style reminiscent of the Third Reich is seared into my memory not because of how realistic it is. In his effort to make The Lion King come alive he inadvertently killed the very thing it was, a fable.

Hooper, at least, understands Webber’s Cats demands fealty to dreams and the intangible. Studios are all for putting their money behind silly things as long as superheroes or comic books are attached to them, but here Universal wagered on something unique.

Again, Cats is the longest-running musical in Broadway history. Yet, pay attention to the reaction online a few days ago, and you’ll see a shocking number of people have no clue it even existed or what it’s even about.  It’s about cats. As far as adaptations go it’s shocking no one has done it before now. I’ve seen a few people argue that live-action is the wrong way to go-animation is the best form for its big-screen debut.

Considering the show itself is a live-action production of interpretative dancing and dancers dressed as cats it would seem an act of sheer cinematic cowardice if they had animated the performers-which remember-they did. Motion capture isn’t real and is instead a form of animation requiring an actor’s presence and movements. 

No one ever said all experiments had to succeed. Heck most of them don’t, it’s why they’re called experiments. But they are necessary for pushing the form forward and exploring new possibilities. 

I’ve recently rediscovered Robert Altman’s much-maligned Popeye. Itself an experiment which is defended by his ardent devotees and pilloried by musical theater lovers. The reason for the divide is because Altman fans understand each Altman film is essentially him teaching us how to watch his films while musical theater people are tearing their hair out because it doesn’t behave the way a musical “should”. 

Popeye is a flawed but unique and charming film which defies almost every classification we put on it. Altman built the actual town of Sweethaven on a small island off the coast of Malta. Like all Altman films, the screen is jammed with characters all of whom are engaged and obsessed with their own lives and destinies and could care less about the film’s desire to corral them. 

In other words, it doesn’t adhere to any standard or rule other than the ones placed upon it by Altman’s own style and personality. It is a pure, flawed diamond which though it bubbles with political allegory in a way the original never intended, it is still pure and sentimental in a way Altman rarely was. Yet, people dislike it because the stars will never win Tony’s or because the film doesn’t behave or adhere to their standards for how a film like Popeye should behave. Well, tough.

Popeye is in large part why I’m so excited for Cats. Hooper is a director with an eye for space but rarely how best to use it. Still, Cats require an earnestness and a willingness to just shrug and give in. It’s a musical about alleycats flirting with each other while they compete for the privilege of societal sanctioned euthanasia. If nothing else the bug nuttiness alone will be worth it.

Experimenting often ends in failure. Sometimes the failure comes from an innate misunderstanding of the form such as Favreau’s The Lion King. Other times, like Valerian, it stems from a boundless imagination but woefully miscast actors to carry us through the rich and orgiastically gorgeous aesthetic created by the director. Or like Popeye, it comes from an outright refusal to even acknowledge expectations or genre rules.

Most importantly the risk of failure comes from trying to do something different. However else I may feel about how Cats looks or seems, I am genuinely excited if only because of the possibilities. For once it appears someone is actually taking a chance.

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures

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