“Everybody’s pickin’ up on that feline beat.” That was Floyd Huddleston and Al Rinker’s thinking in 1970 when they wrote the line in their hit song Everybody Wants to Be a Cat for Disney’s animation hit The Aristocats. And 20 years later, Stockard Channing raised an eyebrow at the idea that absolutely everybody wanted this state of affairs when she exclaimed: “Someone is directing a film of Cats?”
Technically speaking, it wasn’t precisely her question since the line came from playwright John Guare, who gave Channing’s character Ouisa the line in his 1990 play (then film) Six Degrees of Separation.
Guare’s young con artist Paul (played in London by Adrian Lester and on screen by Will Smith) inveigles his way into Channing’s household claiming to be the son of screen legend Sidney Poitier who’s about to make a movie of Lloyd Webber’s blockbuster, originally produced by Cameron Mackintosh.
“He’s going to use people,” reveals Paul, to general astonishment. Paul then warms to his theme. “They thought of lots of ways to go. Animation. But he found a better way. As a matter of fact, he turned it down first. He went to tell the producers – as a courtesy – all the reasons why you couldn’t make a movie of Cats and in going through all the reasons why you couldn’t make a movie of Cats, he suddenly saw how you could make a movie of Cats.”
Similar thoughts must have been crossing Lloyd Webber’s mind for decades, not least when he saw the $441,809,777 box-office gross for the screen version of Mackintosh’s other stage sensation Les Misérables. And, at the end of last week, as Twitter and the rest of the known world discovered when the trailer dropped, life has imitated Guare’s art. To the delight of Working Title, flushed with the success of their Les Mis movie, and Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, at the first sight of the clip, Twitter didn’t so much light up as burst into flame. Unfortunately, flames burn.
Now, we all know the term “confirmation bias”, don’t we? That thing where we view new evidence through the prism of our already made-up mind? I mention it because it’s that which has largely determined the cascade of responses to the trailer.
The musical’s most ardent fans have leaped to their (two) feet to cheer the star casting and four-footed transformation of Judi Dench purring as TS Eliot’s Old Deuteronomy, maniacal James Corden as Bustopher Jones, Ian McKellen looking on benevolently as Gus, the Theatre Cat, and so on.
The rest of us, meanwhile, have looked on in a state pitched precariously between stupefaction and horror. Or, as one actor considered for the movie remarked upon seeing it: “Never in my entire life have I been so relieved to have been turned down for a job.”
In a similar way to those less than whelmed by the just-opened CGI, reality-style The Lion King remake (only much more so), people are flummoxed by the confusion between real-life celebrity faces and the CGI-fur and life-of-their-own cat-tails.
Alongside the expected snorts of derision from the wearisome “all musicals are beneath me” brigade is a series of questions.
Why, they ask – not unfairly – do the female cats’ bodies have human-style breasts? Why does the scale keep changing: one minute, the cats appear huge; the next, they’re smaller than a knife and fork.
Why is Taylor Swift’s cat wearing so-called character shoes (usually a sign of having no character whatsoever)? And why is Judi Dench’s cat wearing a fur coat… made of what, a late friend of hers?
Amusing though the howling outrage has been, much of it is misses the point, which has either been lost en route to production or wholly misunderstood from the start: theatre, with rare exceptions, almost always arrives dead on screen because, although both forms share actors and dialogue, in almost every other respect they are entirely different.
Theatre is metaphorical, film is literal. In the theatre, watching Trevor Nunn’s actors in John Napier’s costumes moving to Gillian Lynne’s feline choreography, audiences knew perfectly well they weren’t watching real cats, but happily agreed to suspend disbelief. Not for nothing is theatre called make-believe.
But film never makes that imaginative demand of the audience. Faced with the footage’s realism, its sets and locations, you simply think: why are these humans pretending to be ugly-looking cats? Worse still, unlike theatre, film relies on close-up. Having the (in)human pretence thus magnified makes it a creepily bizarre experience.
Gone is theatrical suggestion, only to be replaced by faux reality and, in every sense, fake fur. The final credit of the trailer cries, in golden capital letters: “YOU WILL BELIEVE”. On the strength of the response so far, that’s proving to be a very big ask.