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Cringeworthy Cats trailer reminds us we’re not out of the Uncanny Valley yet

Cats – Official Trailer (Universal Pictures) HD

Just when it seemed like Hollywood had found the right formula for blending live-action performances with computer-generated characters, the trailer for Cats comes along and makes all of that success feel like a distant … wait for it … memory.

The first preview of director Tom Hooper’s theatrical spin on the insanely popular Andrew Lloyd Webber stage musical generated no small amount of buzz when it debuted this week, and very little of what was being said was kind.

The trailer features an all-star cast including Dame Judi Dench, James Corden, Taylor Swift, Idris Elba, and various other high-profile stars singing, dancing, and generally doing all the things one would expect from a movie based on a musical stage production — except that they do so beneath a heavy mix of CG effects and makeup that gives them a freaky feline appearance. That they’re also performing within a comically oversized human world adds another layer of off-putting digital lacquer to the on-screen antics, with familiar faces peering out from hair-covered, whisker-twitching, still-quite-humanoid bodies frolicking amid gigantic furniture.

Basically, it’s kind of a furry mess.

It’s also a bit of a bummer, given how great movie audiences have had it in recent years.

Recent films like Alita: Battle Angel and many of the Star Wars and Marvel Cinematic Universe movies have given us CG characters that seamlessly blend human performances with digital artistry, to the point where it’s difficult to tell where the acting ends and technology takes over. They’ve put human faces on robot bodies, brought deceased actors back to cinematic life, and given a sentient tree and a talking raccoon a level of emotional depth that would have seemed impossible a decade ago.

So what went wrong with Cats?

Universal Pictures struck gold with Hooper’s 2012 adaptation of Les Misérables, so it makes sense that the studio would attempt to replicate that formula by bringing another enduring stage musical to the screen under his direction. Unlike the historical foundation that Les Misérables and its visual elements are built on, however, Cats has always been firmly set in a world of flexible fantasy, full of elaborate costumes, that relies heavily on the suspension of disbelief.

The stage musical asks its audience to believe the actors on stage are cats without going all-in on turning them into actual felines. They wear makeup whiskers and fur coats and play dress-up with a Broadway-level costume budget, but there’s an unspoken agreement between the audience and cast that no one is going to look too closely or judge their perceived cat-ness too harshly.

In the movie world, however, CG effects strive for realism. The effectiveness of CG artists’ work is often measured by how little we’re aware of their contributions. The inability to determine what was filmed in-camera and what was digitally created is a sign of success, and even a sentient tree is expected to feel — to the movie’s audience, at least — like it’s perfectly natural for it to be interacting with human characters.

And therein lies the problem when it comes to bringing the wink-and-nod fantasy of Cats to life in the modern, CG-driven cinematic environment.

The concept of the “Uncanny Valley” suggests that the more human we attempt to make an artificial creation look, the more uncomfortable we become. Getting past that Uncanny Valley to the point where computer-generated characters could hold their own on the screen with human actors was a relatively recent achievement for visual effects artists.

A look at the Cats trailer suggests that plenty of time, money, and artistry was invested in bringing the feline characters to life — particularly when it comes to their hair. Hair and animal fur is a notoriously tricky element to create authentically with CG effects. Its imperfections and unpredictable growing patterns make anything that’s too uniform look unnatural — particularly on a body covered with it.

The human face is a similarly tricky element to replicate digitally, with skin tone, shadows, blemishes, and yes, human hair, all combining to make faux-faces a tough sell to audiences — particularly on massive screens that amplify any digital shortcomings.

Both the CG fur and the human faces in the Cats trailer look good, and that might be part of the problem.

Whether you’re a fan or not, realism has never been part of the deal in the Cats stage musical. The production, which ostensibly follows a group of cats who must decide which of their number is given the chance at reincarnation, has always been more about the catchy songs and memorable dance numbers than the implications of their feline existence. We’re told these human actors in fur and makeup are supposed to be cats and we just go along with it.

That unspoken agreement gets tossed out when the film offers a host of real-world cat-folk, though, and the audience is left to deal with a disturbing world of actual, humanoid cats doing (sort of) what cats do (and singing a lot, too).

Instead of talented actors doing what they do best, we have human-cat hybrids romping around with those actors’ faces, and it somehow manages to feel both a little too real and a little too off.

When the film’s CG effects blur the barrier between human actor and cat-like humanoid hybrid, the implied suspension of disbelief that came with the stage costumes and makeup is gone, and what we’re left with is, well … the visual equivalent of the sound a cat makes when you step on its tail.

It’s not a nice look (or sound), certainly — and serves up a powerful reminder of how easily we can be plunged back into the valley.

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Rick Marshall
A veteran journalist with more than two decades of experience covering local and national news, arts and entertainment, and…
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