In the decades to come, our children’s children will doubtlessly ask us, “What were you doing when the strangest movie trailer of all time was released?”
If you haven’t yet experienced the simultaneously whimsical and nightmarish preview for the long-awaited film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit stage musical, Cats, do that now. For non-musical theater types and the uninitiated, the upcoming movie appears to present a confusing collage of A-list celebrities, horrifying CGI, and dancing anthropomorphic pets. For those of us well-accustomed to the stage show, it appears the exact same way.
Like a threatening suggestion, the trailer promises, “THIS HOLIDAY SEASON, YOU WILL BELIEVE,” and it beckons the question: Which holiday? Halloween? April Fools’? I want to believe in this bonkers musical adaptation, but there are too many unanswered questions.
Namely, is this actually the best use of our capabilities with computer-generated imagery? And, can the weirdness of an abstract — albeit insanely successful — theatrical production ever again translate seamlessly into a cinema box office hit?
In a behind-the-scenes preview released by Universal Pictures on Wednesday, director Tom Hooper said, “We’ve used digital fur technology to create the most perfect covering of fur,” and many people, including myself, wondered what exactly that would entail. To find out in this (literally) stunning trailer is to question if we all share the same definition of the word “perfect.” Sure, the realism is there, to an extent, but so is an undeniable cognitive dissonance. The much-memed line from Jurassic Park is applicable: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
A more palatable example of the pitfalls of CGI came with the release of Disney’s “live action” remake of The Lion King. Many reviewers, including NPR’s Justin Chang, lamented the lost emotion from the film’s characters bound up in its display of 21st-century technological prowess. While the hand-drawn animations of the 1994 version gave way to wild and adorable imagery, this new one is, perhaps, “so realistic-looking that, paradoxically, you can’t believe a moment of it.” When Cats opened on Broadway in 1982 (the same year as the release of the sexy, animal horror film Cat People — coincidence?), the players didn’t look exactly like cats. They wore tights and leg warmers and big, new wave hairdos. They understood that the power of suggestion in creating a world was more convincing than photorealism.
That isn’t to say that Cats hasn’t always been an oddity. In its 18-year Broadway run, it mystified many with its shockingly successful combination of plotless poetry, an eclectic musical score, and some sort of alien spaceship ending.
I saw a touring production of Cats in junior high, and afterwards my friend and I waited outside the theater to meet some of the performers. While we waited, we met a middle-aged couple wearing fabric cat ears and tails who “followed” the show. In fact, it had been their hundredth-odd time experiencing the musical. These people are weird, I thought. But that’s exactly who the show is made for. I wasn’t sporting any furry accessories that night, but I was weird too because I willingly attended a deranged, ambiguously sexual, kitty sing-a-long.
Can the new Cats movie exude the same energy? Attract the same cult following? The incredible star power (along with the power of morbid curiosity) assures that it will make money at the box office. Sure, the trailer showcases a load of aesthetic incongruities that forces us to reconcile our relationship with reality, but maybe it’s the musical we deserve. Maybe we’re entering a new cinematic age.
One thing is for sure: we all now have a present that we can’t open until Christmas. An oddly-shaped one with psychedelic wrapping paper.
Featured image: Cats (2019), Universal Pictures