When the trailer for Tom Hooper’s Cats premiered over the summer, many were, let’s say, taken aback by the film’s CGI. The visuals transformed the star-studded cast into human-cat hybrids like something straight out of The Island of Doctor Moreau. The internet had a field day and plenty of jokes were made at the film’s expense. People shouldn’t be too eager to deal out scorn and ridicule though, because Sir Ian McKellen has taken up the cause of defending Cats' viral CGI. He said:
The stage show, Cats, was not about a lot of people being convincing as cats, but it was about human beings discovering their cat-like nature. And it was hugely successful. When it was now being done in film, the temptation I think must have been to turn those actors into cats, like Lion King, and make them look like real cats, but they're not real cats. They're people playing cats, and that is the notion of the film, and it's been done very wittingly, I think, and particularly the dancers.
In his defense of Cats’ viral CGI, Ian McKellen, who plays Gus The Theatre Cat, primarily addressed a misconception surrounding both the film and the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical upon which it is based. As Ian McKellen said, the incredibly successful and long-running stage show Cats was not designed to trick audiences into thinking that the human actors were actually cats. In his mind the musical is about human characters discovering a cat-like nature within themselves.
By this reasoning, it doesn’t matter that the people don’t actually look like real cats. As Ian McKellen told ET, adapting the stage show for a feature film could have resulted in a different approach, one where the actors were turned into photo-realistic cats, similar to The Lion King. You could have even done a less realistic animated movie in the same vein, where the cats are more convincing as real cats.
But that approach wouldn’t be staying true to the source material because they aren’t supposed to be real cats, they’re people playing cats-- regardless of whether it’s on the stage or on the screen. So in Ian McKellen’s opinion, the CGI used in Cats is the only way that Cats could be done while staying true to what it is and what it’s supposed to be.
It’s a strong argument and while I’ve never seen it, I can’t imagine fans of the musical would take issue with the look of Tom Hooper’s film because it looks very much like what you would expect Andrew Lloyd Webber’s show to look like if translated into a feature film. The CGI human-cat hybrids are kind of the only way you could do Cats in a movie and have it still be Cats.
It wouldn’t really be Cats if it was a traditionally animated movie or if it took the approach that Jon Favreau’s Lion King did. First off it would look weird having photo-realistic cats dancing. Secondly, this story looks quite emotional and as The Lion King showed, photo-realistic animals can’t emote the way humans or traditionally animated characters can.
So it’s kind of like what did you expect a Cats movie to look like? It’s a great point from Ian McKellen that addresses why the cats look the way they do. However, that doesn’t change the fact that many will still find the CGI human-cat hybrids to be off-putting and weird and horrifying, regardless of the why. Maybe it’s one of those things though like Will Smith’s Genie and de-aging where you get used to it after a few minutes of watching.
Cats dances into theaters on December 20. Check out our guide to see what other big holiday movies are coming around Thanksgiving and Christmas.