I'm not the first one to say this, but this year in film has been quite, (to put it politely) peculiar. From the urban live-action/animated fantasy film noir, Detective Pikachu, based on the Pokémon game of the same name, to the direct-to-video SyFy horror adaption of The Banana Splits, it seems any type of adaption can easily get greenlit regardless of how absurd it can be. In a sense, these ideas are rather interesting solely for their weirdness. I don't expect any of them to age too well, but it's still fascinating to consider how this year for movies will be remembered years from now. However, as far as film adaptions of 2019 go, I think we can all agree that the one that left everyone the most perplexed is the upcoming live-action adaption of the 1981 Andrew-Lloyd Weber musical, Cats. Ever since it was announced in mid-July, the film has received a mostly negative reaction from spectators highlighting how uncanny valley it looks. From its bizarre blend of CGI and live-action, to its overall aesthetic and just the mere presentation of the characters along with the universe they inhabit, the look and feel of this movie leaves an unpleasant imprint on the viewers' visual senses.
You can view the trailer here and see for yourself how uneasy this film looks on the eyes. I can safely tell you, that 'unsettling' is a bit of an understatement. The movie is slated for release on December 20th, but it's already obvious why the aesthetic choices don't do these characters or the story any favors. First off, at the beginning of the trailer, we see two of the characters in the middle of the streets wandering about. At first glance, they look like humans emulating cat-like behaviors, which comes as no surprise as that's what the cast of the Broadway musical did, too, except in the next scene, the viewer gets a glimpse at how the characters are costumed. The shot introduces us to this version of Victoria (Francesca Hayward), but unlike the Broadway show, where the costumes look organically blended with the actors, the costumes look oddly intertwined with the actress's body. It doesn't look like a costume. The CGI effects make it so that the fur is part of a human body, rendering it (no pun intended) to look like a mutation between a person and a cat. The next shots showcased in the trailer don't get any better as it goes on. In the following scene, we see Victoria and Mr. Mistofflelees (Laurie Davidson) running to a gate to meet another cat, revealing what the rest of the cast of characters all look like. They all suffer from the same problem: The costumes look way too much mutations than cats! I think the designs of Macavity (Idris Elba), Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench), Bustopher Jones (James Corden) and Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson) to name a few of the more elaborate characters in their appearance add another layer of blurry confusion of where the costume, the CGI and the live actor begin and where they all end. By the way the rest of the cast is outfitted, the costumes appear more skin tight to the point it becomes difficult to discern what is what, which all those factors lead to an uncanny valley foul taste. In addition, the perspective is another aspect of the film that doesn't sit very well with audiences and with good reason. Given the fact that the characters look like a bad combination of both human and cat, the locations and sceneries where they interact are just way too strange and quite unsettling on account of how small everyone appears to be. To match the size of a cat, the actors are set in a way where everything looks relatively as big as it would to the eyes of a cat, but given the character designs, the perspectives come off as incredibly wonky, making it slightly nauseating to lay eyes on.
Admittedly, the soundtrack and vocal sound very promising, but unfortunately with all those factors ruining the overall appearance of the movie, I highly doubt very many music fans, much less die-hard Broadway buffs are going to be too enthused to obtain a copy either physical or digital. The movie in comparison to the Broadway show brings me back some fond memories (so to speak) of when I went to see the musical in 1999 as a pre-teen. I remember being impressed with the choreography, the songs and the layout of the streets the Jellicle cats (as they are referred to) would all gather in. I liked how the costumes naturally suited the performers and how the make-up was done that it presented the characters' personalities and traits so well. You also have to figure that while the premise of Cats is quite simple, there is a certain depth and meaning in the story that adds to its timeless quality like its source material by T. S. Eliot and why the film adaption is just going to end up being a product of its time.
That's actually not to say a film adaption of Cats can't come into fruition, that is, if done correctly. In fact there was an animated version planned. It has been confirmed that in the early-90's, Steven Spielberg's now-defunct company, Amblimation had an animated version in the works, but was scrapped upon the studio's closure. According to the catsmusical.fandom.com site, Spielberg "decided to set the show during the Blitz in London (1940-1941)" and veteran animators, Hans Bacher and Luc Desmarchelier posted some concept art on their blogs. Hans Bacher was responsible for the look and feel of the film and "spent a lot of time researching some rather 'unusual' London environments". Part of the task involved seeking the "trashiest spots [the team] could find" and scrolling down after a photograph of the creative team are some rough sketches and other related art by Bacher himself. In an additional post, Bacher writes about when he came on aboard with the rest of the team, which at the time they were a few months into the project. At the time, the idea was to blend miniature models with traditional animation. However, Steven Spielberg envisioned the animated world of Cats during the Blitz, so Bacher "started fresh with [his] designs" and thus began the research and reimagining of the film. Hans Bacher adds that in London, "behind all the sightseeing tourist area, there were 'backyards', a hidden world of trash and destruction" and that he "still [had] a map of '[his] real [L]ondon' where [he] marked this reference world". He adds that after 17 years, most likely, there's nothing left of the trash and war torn environment. (Mind you, he posted this on October 19th, 2008).
Luc Desmarchelier adds his various pieces of concept art to his own blog, which not only does he do an outstanding job of highlighting the vision for the film, but the audience gets a sense of how the cats themselves might have been animated. Character designers, Carlos Grangel and Nico Marlet worked various pieces consisting of how the characters would have been reimagined for the film and certainly, their art captured the personalities and traits associated with each of the prominent characters spot on! Old Deuteronomy looks as grand as one would have imagined an animated counter part of him. Grizabella looks just as worn down and shabby as she's portrayed in the musical, that the viewer instantly sees how past her prime she is. Macavity looks just as sinister as his musical depiction.
With the abundance of concept art and potential the film could have had, it's unfortunate it never came to be, but upon simply examining it, it's no surprise that it had more visual appeal to audiences than the 2019 film does. To this day, an animated adaption of Cats can still be a viable choice with the right art direction. The key is not only garnering an understanding of the stage show itself, but making the sceneries and character designs more organic. Put simply, the team behind the live-action film appears to understand the stage show very well, but the combination of CGI animation and live-action, coupled with the wonky perspectives is what throws the audience off. You may know the ropes of the source material and nail it perfectly in that regard as well as having a solid cast, but if the visuals don't mesh well, it fails to resonate with the audience the way it was intended to. Unfortunately, this is what happened with the live-action film. Had the audience gotten the planned animated movie by Steven Spielberg or something similar to it, then the reception would yield more positive results.
The concept created by Spielberg works in every possible way because it doesn't try to emulate the live performance the way the live-action film does. From what can be gathered about the production of the animated Cats movie, the environments the characters inhabit would have been far more appealing to look at for a variety of reasons. For one, the characters would have blended better with the perspectives more. At the time, 2D animation was still commonplace in the animation film industry and the trend in 1990's theatrical releases were mostly animated musicals, so designing the characters and sets best suited of a 2D setting is accessible. Once the environments are designed, deciding how the characters should look is easy to decipher. Knowing how a film looks gives the character designer an idea as to what type of character designs would be fitting for the environments created.
This brings us to the second reason why an animated movie would tip the Cats story in its favor. It's common knowledge that when designing a character, the final product should tell the viewer on a basic level who the character is and what their role might be based on visual cues. Putting it into action is easier said than done. Taking live actors from a stage show and deciding on what their animated counter parts should look like is a daunting task, one that requires multiple drawings as with any other animated project. In the case of Cats, it's a matter of understanding the characters and making sure the animated versions showcase those basic traits in their overall appearance. A major flaw of the live-action film is that it lacks showcasing character personality and/or leaves little room in the designs for audiences to get invested in the characters, which we'll compare and contrast in a moment.
Finally, it's the story itself. Cats the musical is a very simple story with a relatable moral. While we all get so caught up in things of glamour, those are things that fade over time and thus, will never bring true happiness. Grizabella, an aged cat, the best years of her life long passed, reminds the other Jellicle cats that in her iconic musical number, Memory. It was easy for them to reject her just because she's old and lost much of the charm of her youth, but if they welcome her back, they will remember never to take the best years of their own lives for granted and that the moment they are presently living in will someday be a memory just like her glory days. Simple stories with thought provoking themes don't need over complicated designs and sets to convey a narrative. Animation is a visual medium that if well written, drawn and directed, it can speak volumes to its viewers. The character designs and layouts of the animated Cats do what animated movies are often known to do: know the story and let the visuals tell it. Both story and visuals should go hand-in-hand and what Spielberg had in mind conveyed this spot on! This applies to any visual piece, especially if it's an adaption of a pre-existing stage show, so these creative decisions are very important to take into account.
The character designs in the live-action lack what this animation could have been because there seems to be less focus on who the characters are and more on trying to create impressive visuals while trying to look like the stage show. This doesn't work because on one hand, these designs fail to resonate with the viewer. If your interest is geared towards taking advantage of modern technologies and less on letting your characters tell a story visually, that is a fundamental flaw in which will prompt your audience to be less engage and rather more perplexed. As stated before, the character designs in the live-action film blurs the line between CGI and the costumed character. This could easily work if there was a proper balance of CGI, live actor/actress and costume (rotoscoping, maybe?), but in this case, it's clear the emphasis was geared towards visual appearance a little too much. The designs became over saturated with CGI and live action, thus creating an uncanny valley mess with little to no focus on designing a character that says who he or she is at first glance. Surely you can spend so much time on CGI in hopes it will match up to the quality of what you hope to achieve, but if your end result is being discussed less about who the characters are and their story and more about how their design is unsettling, your intent to grab the audiences' attention becomes futile. Viewers complained about the character designs in the live-action Cats for that reason. Pair that with the perspectives of their environment and that just adds to the problem. Making visuals too overcomplicated when they don't need to be doesn't encourage audiences to be invested in a story. Sometimes it can easily drive people away or be less invested in the story because there's something too distracting about the visuals. The animated movie on the other hand makes use of the simplicity of Cats by coming up with a specific idea of what their world would look like and how to properly fashion the characters. All of those factors are important to take into account because at the end of the day, each component will be a major factor in what draws people into the story, relate to the characters and (in the case of Cats being a musical), get into the soundtrack.
The main question I had going into this post was if Cats could ever have a more effective retelling and if so, what would have been better suited for it than the live-action film?. In order to answer that, it just takes a specific understanding why the live-action film fails on so many fronts, understanding what worked for the stage performance and how the scrapped animated movie demonstrated a more ideal alternative. Aside from its musical numbers, the show relies so much on character and setting. While visuals are important, they go hand-in-hand with the characters and their environment. If making a live-action film was of the interest of the directors, it would have made more sense to focus on choosing CGI animation over live actors or rotoscoping than trying too hard to blend the two. The reason the canceled 1997 project would have done the story and characters of Cats justice was because the environments and character designs were carefully taken into consideration in regards to story. With the right combinations and less emphasis on just visuals, the goal shouldn't be trying to be the stage performance of Cats, but let it be its own thing. It's an adaption of an iconic musical, but it should be created to stand on its own. By doing so, this is how the final product resonates with audiences. With each and every puzzle piece put together to create a visual motion picture that best fits the tone and ambiance of the story, you'd be bound to latch onto the audience's attention for the right reasons. This is true with any animation or visual medium for that matter. In an era where CGI has become prevalent in both animation and live-action, it's no surprise Hollywood easily abuses it at times to a saturation point, causing the quality of movies to suffer a great deal. If studios begin to return to their roots where their focus is equally attentive to story and art direction as seen with the potential Steven Spielberg's version of Cats would have been, think of countless possibilities that could come of musical films and other forms of animation and live-action.
Disney has been a staple in animated films for eighty years since its release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937 and continues to enlighten children and adults with their clever storytelling, memorable characters and of course, timeless tales through the art of animation. Walt Disney, the man himself behind the famous company name once reminded us “that it was all started by a mouse”, which made its debut in 1928 in the short film Steamboat Willie. From the early days of Mickey Mouse in short films to full-length animated features like Snow White, Fantasia (1940), Bambi (1942), Cinderella (1950) and Lady and the Tramp (1955), Walt Disney and his creative team continuously pushed the boundaries of the art form, capturing realism and life for their characters and the world they inhabit by using techniques such as the multi-plane camera, cel animation and (when it would be effective), rotoscoping. Until his death in 1966, Walt Disney had spent his career, adding to his creative and innovative repertoire. With live action films, theme parks and animatronics also a part of his company’s innovative collection, no one can doubt if Walt Disney was alive today he would be welcoming of 3D (CGI) animation as well and thus, be ready and willing to explore is creative potential. In fact upon the debut of Pixar’s first full-length CGI animated feature, Toy Story in 1995, which the Disney company distributed, Walt’s nephew, Roy E. Disney said so himself that his uncle would loved the film.
Given the Walt Disney Animation Studios’ success in the 1990’s during the Renaissance era to its decline in the early 2000’s and downsizing throughout the entire decade to its resurgence in the 2010’s, one might be wondering, will Disney ever create a new film using traditional animation? Perhaps the best way to answer that is to evaluate what happened in the 2000’s and what the company is experimenting with nowadays.
Surely it would seem that with the success of Pixar, today's popular releases like Frozen (2013) and Big Hero 6 (2014) and the decline of Disney in the 2000’s, it does seem that hand drawn animation would be a thing of the past. As Pixar released hit after hit with Toy Story 2 (1999), Monsters, Inc. (2001), Finding Nemo (2003) and The Incredibles (2004), Disney would have a few successes like Lilo and Stitch (2002), but suffered major failures with Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001), Treasure Planet (2002) and Home on the Range (2004). The following year, Disney released its first CGI animated feature, Chicken Little, which was a financial success, but was completely out of favor with critics for its notorious lackluster story and dislikable characters. Throughout the remainder of the decade, Disney released three more animated features, two of which were CGI, Meet the Robinsons (2007) and Bolt (2008) and a 2D feature, The Princess and the Frog (2009). Meet the Robinsons was not as successful as Bolt and while The Princess and the Frog was a box office success, it failed to exceed expectations for two reasons. One of which was as current president of Disney and Pixar, Ed Catmull indicated in his and the late Amy Wallace’s book, Creativity Inc, Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration that the “marketing folks warned us: Having the word princess in the title would lead moviegoers to think that the film was for girls only” (Catmull, Wallace p. 268) and that there was also the issue that it was released five days prior to James Cameron’s Avatar. Another set back, which was highlighted by Pixar and Disney’s current chief creative officer, John Lasseter in an article by Variety, he stated that “[he] was determined to bring back [hand-drawn animation] because [he] felt it was such a heritage of the Disney studio” and that after delving into details via research, the results revealed that the film “was viewed as old-fashioned by the audience”.
In an article by Mitchell Stein on The Mickey Mindset Blog, entitled Will Disney Ever Return to Making Hand-Drawn Animated Films?, there is mention of how The Princess and the Frog and the 2011 Winnie the Pooh both failed to compete with other film releases and financially fell short of expectations. Stein goes on to further explain that after Moana, although Disney has no 2D animated films announced in the years to come, he reminds readers that “traditional 2D animation still continues to live on in different forms at the Walt Disney Animation Studios in unexpected forms. In recent years, Disney has found ways to blend unique styles of animation between CG and hand drawn 2D to create stunning results”. He discusses the Academy Award winning 2012 short, Paperman, which made its debut alongside Disney’s 52nd feature animated film, Wreck-It Ralph and pinpoints that Disney “blended the use of traditional animated over CG-rendered work. The result is both stunning and immersive, showcasing Disney’s ability to push innovation and creativity to unexplored frontiers”. (To learn more about the making of Paperman, the film’s director, John Kahrs discusses his process in an article by fxguide, which you can find here).
In addition to Paperman, other short films such as Feast (2014) and Inner Workings (2016) were also created with this technique. Even so, Moana, which is mostly CGI animated, there are also a few aspects that are animated in 2D, such as the opening and the tattoo character, Mini Maui. According to an article entitled Disney’s Oscar-Winning Software Brought ‘Moana’ to Life, But Could a Full Length Movie Be Coming Soon? by Sam Cooper on Movie Pilot, Disney is creating these new animated techniques via Meander, a program that juxtaposes 3D and 2D and delves a bit into how it works. To put it simply, Cooper highlights in bold letters that the program “takes the first layer—a moving, multidimensional image—and allows it to drag the lines of the second layer along with it, filling in the gaps of the hand drawings and letting the hard lines take the spotlight”.
With Disney continuing to innovate as they have always done over the past 80 years, possibilities are as endless today as they have always been in the past. The company has no doubt, had its ups and downs as, especially after Walt Disney's death. It can be a major challenge for a company to adopt a similar mindset as its founder, an example seen in recent years with Apple, Inc following Steve Job’s death, but once a company understands what made their past projects great, they are able to display that same craftsmanship and spirit as the company’s pioneer. The studio was able to bounce back in the 1990’s with the Renaissance era by adopting new innovative approaches to storytelling while retaining the spirit of the classics that made Disney famous and are doing it again in the 2010’s. Innovation in both animation and narrative are the reason the company continues flourish and therefore, 2D animation is not a thing of the past. It’s simply evolving with the times. Disney appears to be exploring new techniques so that the art form would continue to be fresh and new rather than look like they are trying to recreate the past. This is actually no different than the early days of Pixar, experimenting with CGI short films before Toy Story’s debut or how Walt Disney himself experimented with new techniques by starting small and then building up. What is important to note is that Disney, like every other company built around innovation is constantly evolving and failure occurs in the process, not because of the art style, but because of the timing of their releases, how they go about marketing and of course, lack of innovation in the animation techniques. That being said, Disney can make a successful new 2D animated feature through innovation in their animation techniques and retaining their classic spirit without trying to blatantly repeat what they had already done before.
Ever (re)discovered new facts about any art form or part of pop culture that you thought you knew before and realized there might be more to the story than what meets the eye? The Blog section debunks common expectations and assumptions in the art world.