Guys, we need to talk about the “Cats” trailer. No, we can’t ignore this. Yes, I’m sorry.
I’ve never really believed we live in a just, good, happy universe, but if you were to pinpoint the exact moment when I lost faith in all that is good, it would probably be sometime around 6:30 p.m. Thursday, July 18, when I watched the new “Cats” trailer for the first time.
Adapted by an Oscar-winning filmmaker—Tom Hooper, director of Best Picture winner “The King’s Speech”—from the beloved musical and starring a cavalcade of A-listers — Judi Dench! Idris Elba! Taylor Swift!—”Cats” seemed like a surefire hit. And then came the trailer and with it a horde of hideous, half-cat, half-human hybrids. And a really, really big question:
I found myself baffled by how spectacularly Hooper flubbed this. And at the core of all that is unholy about this new “Cats” trailer—a great deal, mind you, including nipple-less fuzzy cat breasts—is the very same issue beneath most of what hasn’t worked in big blockbuster movies for the last two decades. Why CGI?
I understand the desire to assemble an A-list cast to bring the musical’s felines to life. I understand the desire to render them kinda-sorta-humanoid. And I even understand the desire to make the stars’ faces visible to capitalize on the sheer insanity of “Oh my god, that cat is Judi Dench!” But nothing can aptly explain, or justify, the need for the movie’s protagonists to be scaled-down, half-feline, half-human, all horrific CGI monstrosities.
First off, there’s the question of why Hooper even felt the need to go so heavy on the animation front. The characters are already humanoid cats, so there’s no legitimate reason why they couldn’t just be actors caked in makeup and fursuits. And think of how impressive it would be to see the world around them brought to life with oversized sets to emphasize their feline size. But in opting for such a CGI-heavy representation of this story, he’s rooted his sensibilities firmly in the uncanny valley, crafting nightmare creatures that might make Wes Craven or Guillermo del Toro jealous.
Beyond that, why even keep this live action? It’s a story that’s been told many, many times on stage with people in fursuits, though there are certainly formal differences to capitalize on in telling “Cats” as a movie rather than as a stage play. The thing that so many filmmakers nowadays fail to remember is just how spellbinding and expressive animation can be as a medium.
There’s a reason Disney made a name for itself with an entire canon of animated delights well before it put itself on the map as a big name in live action, too. There’s a reason studios like Pixar, Dreamworks and Illumination continue to pour so many resources into animated filmmaking.
It’s simple, really: Some stories are too good for live action.
Take, for instance, last year’s Academy Award-winning “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” an immaculately crafted and genuinely transcendent stunner of a movie that wowed audiences of all ages. It’s imaginative, full of heart and the best comic book movie in years purely because it takes decades’ worth of comic book storytelling styles and lore and lovingly molds it into something all its own.
It not only understands the heart of the narratives that inspired it, but it aptly translates the singular expressiveness and unique rhythm of comic storytelling onto the big screen in a way that so many superhero films before it failed to do.
So why couldn’t “Cats” have taken notes from “Into the Spider-Verse” or the hundreds of other trailblazing animated films that forged their own visual language? Imagine “Cats” as a cartoon delight, a stop motion animated marvel or even a 3D animated family film in the vain of “Moana.”
It would be way less horrific, way more expressive and all the more able to embrace its own gleeful weirdness. But alas, we’re stuck with Judi Dench Cat, and she’ll haunt us forever.