When the trailer for the film adaption of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats dropped in July, it didn’t quite receive the hero’s welcome befitting one of the highest-grossing musicals of all time, not to mention one packed with a who’s who of talent.
Directed by Tom Hooper (Les Misérables, The Danish Girl, The King’s Speech) and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler (Hamilton, In the Heights), Cats (which hits theaters Friday) stars Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Idris Elba, Jennifer Hudson, Rebel Wilson, James Corden, Jason Derulo, and Taylor Swift.
However, all that star power couldn’t save the first peek at Cats from getting flamed by the internet. The trailer was called “disturbing,” “baffling,” and “terrifying” because the look of the film is firmly nestled in uncanny valley, where the feline characters still look just human enough to make viewers uncomfortable. And viewers were very uncomfortable: The trailer currently has 13.2 million views on YouTube, with 124,000 likes and 321,000 dislikes.
The problem everyone seems to have with the movie, ironically, is precisely what Hooper needed to make it work: CGI.
“I think the trailer reaction was interesting because it reminded me of what my original intention was, which was to not have the visual effects get in a way and to protect the human face in the design,” Hooper says.
Cats, based largely on poems by T.S. Eliot, tells the story of a group of cats called Jellicles who are preparing for the Jellicle Ball, an event where they compete in song and dance for the chance to have a new life.
To be clear, the CGI in the movie is quite jarring. Having seen the film, I thought maybe my mind would eventually settle into this world of Jellicle cats—that somehow these creatures that look like they’re stuck in between an Animorphs transformation would become familiar.
However, there are a smattering of truly powerful moments, namely Hudson’s turn as the disgraced cat Grizabella, that aren’t necessarily enhanced by CGI but that certainly deliver on what Hooper was after: raw emotion unencumbered by static prosthetics, set against a world that, at the very least, did feel cinematic.
The origin of Cats on film
In the 90s, Steven Spielberg was in talks to do an animated film version of Cats through Amblimation, the defunct animation arm of his Amblin Entertainment studio. The project stalled and eventually fizzled out until producer Debra Hayward resurrected it in 2012. Hayward brought the project to Hooper, whose adaptation of Les Mis took home three Oscars that year, including Anne Hathaway’s win for best supporting actress.
With Les Mis, more than the accolades, Hooper felt he’d accomplished a new challenge for himself: turning a classical musical into a silver screen spectacle. So when the opportunity for Cats came along, he felt compelled to accept—plus, he’s been a fan since childhood. “Cats was the musical I truly fell in love with when I was eight years old,” the filmmaker says. “I was the proud owner of the album on cassette and listened to it endlessly.”
What was enticing for Hooper was the fact that a film version of the musical had never been seen through to fruition.
“And I thought, maybe it’s never been made because no one can figure out what the cats should look like,” he says. “And maybe some visual effects technology might’ve opened a portal to reexamining how you might do that. And so began a seven-year journey to figure out what the answer was.”
All roads lead to CGI
Hooper’s intention had always been to elevate Cats from stage costumes and a single location to something more sweeping and immersive for cinema. The problem at the time, however, was the prohibitive cost of visual effects, which led Hooper to try prosthetics for about a year.
“But the difficulty was you ended up with full-faced prosthetics where you lost so much emotion,” Hooper says. “And then also you still got static cat ears on the head. It’s crazy not to move the ears. So all the paths seemed to lead me back to visual effects.”
Time worked in Hooper’s favor.
“What’s been really interesting is about three years ago, I was told that what I wanted to do—sculpt the fur to the actual face—was impossible. Two years ago it was, ‘Well, it’s possible, but it’s insanely expensive.’ And a year and a half ago, it was like, ‘It’s just about affordable and doable,'” he says. “The speed of the curve of change in that world is dizzying.”
But just because advanced technology is available and affordable, should it be used?
CGI: Catastrophe or clever?
Hooper defends his choice of using CGI by arguing that it’s just digital hair, makeup, and costumes that’s animated with computers. Everything else is live action.
“It was all shot on huge, oversized sets. It’s all live dance. It’s all live singing. And I preserved as much of the actors’ original face as I could,” he says. “So in a sense, it’s a live-action movie with this fantastical intervention to allow them to be more feline.”
What’s really at the core of Hooper’s Cats is proper casting, most evident in Hudson as Grizabella. She is the emotional anchor, having been shunned by the Jellicles, which then leads to her delivering by far the most popular song from the show, “Memory.”
“In some ways, the film’s quite binary—that scene has to work,” Hooper says of Grizabella singing “Memory.” “There aren’t many people out there who could have had that confidence, and Jennifer Hudson was one of those people. We did 14 takes and what you saw was take 14. So it was pretty much all day exploring that one song.”
The raw emotion Hudson brings to Grizabella, along with the boyish enthusiasm Laurie Davidson channels into Mr. Mistoffelees, pierces through and gives the film a kind of heart, which is what the original stage production did with spandex-and-fur costumes and makeup.
Hooper’s decision to use CGI is certainly polarizing. But the original stage show is divisive as well. Cats is basically a story of cats dancing and singing in a competition where the grand prize is being raptured. It’s one of those musicals you either love or hate.
Hooper’s Cats took seven years to make it to the screen because the technology needed to catch up with Hooper’s vision. And he defends his choice to move ahead with the project and not wait another year or so for CGI to improve even more (and maybe avoid some of the initial bad buzz).
“I think I found the language that I wanted, and so that extent of the journey reached its conclusion,” he says. “It’s very entertaining and escapist and quite anarchic and bonkers and fun, as well as moving and funny. So I hope people will see the movie.”