Fever Dream: The Movie
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You’ve seen the trailer. You’ve witnessed its disastrous reception online. You’ve heard the jest, the mockery, the jokes. This spectacle needs no introduction because it has already introduced itself via the bang heard from your common feline knocking over an expensive vase as it stares you down with its cold, dead eyes. Originally a Broadway musical, “Cats” is a new film directed by Tom Hooper, with executive producers Stephen Spielberg, Angela Morrison, and Andrew Lloyd Webber, the last of whom wrote the original hit musical.
The original “Cats” was inspired by T.S Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” a collection of poems about our feline friends. These poems would later be adapted into the lyrics of the songs in Webber’s production. The musical premiered in 1981 on London’s West End, where it was praised as a landmark in Britain’s history of musical theater. Even its naysayers shifted more toward calling it “flawed” than “bad,” their main complaints being that there was too much going on at once onstage. The musical soon made its way to Broadway, where it is still mostly well received by the public. Today, “Cats” is hailed as one of the greatest Broadway musicals and is widely considered a turning point in theater history for its originality, creativity, and splendor.
So how does the movie compare?
In the film, a group of cats—collectively called the Jellicles—attends an annual ball where one of them is chosen for a new life in the Heaviside Layer (which is never fully explained, but implied to be something like cat heaven) by Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench), the unofficial leader of the Jellicles. This particular year, Macavity (Idris Elba) is kidnapping his fellow competitors so that he may be the only option left for Old Deuteronomy. The story follows Victoria (Francesca Hayward), a new member of the group, who is introduced to the Jellicle cats as they sing their songs.
Viewing the movie entirely on its own merit, “Cats” is a failed attempt at a musical. The dancers are consistently placed front and center, yet all movement is edited drastically and exaggerated wildly in an attempt to make the dancing seem more impressive. The camera also feels the need to move so often that very little choreography can actually be seen by the audience. The color palette is all over the place, too and at some points can become even painful to watch because there are so many bright colors being shown at once.
The cast of the movie is star-studded: even Taylor Swift is in the film as Bombalurina. This doesn’t translate into a notable performance; the acting only ranges from subpar to average.
To its credit, plenty of the songs are well-voiced and entertaining, either because they are genuinely good or because there is so much happening on the screen that the songs draw most of the attention. The translation into a more electronic style keeps the songs fresh. I genuinely like the film version of both “Jellicle Songs For Jellicle Cats” and “Macavity: The Mystery Cat.”
The film also made quite a few notable changes to the original plot. The most obvious being the fact that Victoria, originally a dancer with no singing role, is now the protagonist with an additional plotline of trying to find a place among the Jellicle Cats. Then there’s Macavity, who is now a villain, rigging the competition and whisking Old Deuteronomy away near the end of the musical. Many of the characters have also had their original personalities altered—mostly for the worse. Mr. Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson), for example, is now timid and insecure of his magical powers, when in the original, he was far from shy.
But the most important changes were made to what acted as the centerpieces of the musical: the songs.
While some songs, such as “Macavity: The Mystery Cat,” were adapted beautifully, most songs had been stripped of what made them so delightful. To “enhance” the script, the writers broke up the song “Mr. Mistoffelees” in a (failed) attempt to build dramatic tension and reduced the playful tune of “The Old Gumbie Cat” to a series of fat jokes. The worst adaptation happened to arguably the best song from the original Broadway production: “Memory.” This was the most iconic song from the original musical, sung by Grizabella, who has lost her previous home and is now a stray. In the film, however, Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson) plays up the emotion behind this song so much that the performance becomes exhausting and melodramatic.
We cannot discuss the movie without mentioning the elephant in the room: the animation. “Cats” was designed as a live action movie and layered with CGI, making the characters appear more catlike in form while retaining human movements. This was done to appeal to the same audience that loved the original musical, which featured humans in catlike costumes. Live productions have to rely on people’s imaginations in a way that movies do not, for both the setting and the characters. The film’s maintenance of these human-like, fantastical designs in the more realistic cityscape is rather unsettling. Instead of accepting the designs as a mark of artistic liberty, you can’t help but imagine these creatures roaming the streets around your house. That aside, how fully the producers embraced this design choice must be applauded. This specific style appears throughout the film with every animal, including the cats, mice, and roaches, and is put on full display at every opportunity through the choreography of the musical numbers.
“Cats” is a fever dream on a screen. The plot is thin; the pacing is all over the place; the characters are one-note (and often very different from their Broadway counterparts); and the songs are a hit or miss. It’s not a good adaptation—let alone a good movie—but it is imaginative in its design. If you’re looking for something strange to gawk at with a group of friends while you eat popcorn, then this is a fine enough pick.