Will the fur fly when Cats finally hits our screens?

Donald Clarke: The online kerfuffle should do Tom Hooper’s project no harm

Remember “negging”? Promoted by self-identified “pick-up artists,” the disgusting argument went that women secretly craved slyly phrased insults. Some such nonsense. This bone-headed philosophy is unearthed merely to offer an analogy for what’s going on with the Cats trailers.

The folk behind the upcoming feline musical keep putting out trailers and they keep getting burnt. It’s like watching an unhealthy relationship play itself out in a public space. You want to intervene. But neither party seems willing to join you for a soothing prosecco and a cathartic weep. Why do they do this to themselves?

There was already much wary chatter before the first trailer dropped in July. Derived from Andrew Lloyd-Weber's hit 1981 show, Tom Hooper's film cast a bewildering variety of actors as the eponymous moggies. Where else would you find Judi Dench, Jennifer Hudson, Taylor Swift, Idris Elba and Rebel Wilson in the same alley? On stage, the actors came across like kids who'd dressed up in their grannies' cast-offs before being taken for face-painting. Nothing threatening there. Word got out early that, in the film, digital manipulation would make a Grizabella of Hudson and a Deuteronomy of Dench. Might we be looking at pseudo-realism in the style of the recent Lion King?

As if. July 19th will go down in the annals of movie history. The first trailer arrived to unprecedented volleys of unease and confusion. Where to begin? Most of the characters looked as if they’d been stripped naked, had intimate parts painted over and then been coated with a thin veneer of artificial fuzz. The observation that tails seemed to sprout from the human bottom – rather than the coccyx – fuelled suggestions that a particular sexual kink was being targeted (not that there’s anything wrong with that).


Within hours of landing, the trailer had become, from the studio's perspective, the wrong sort of viral sensation

In this shot, Taylor Swift is wearing only a pair of heeled shoes while reclining in sultry repose. If she’s wearing shoes, but nothing over her breasts, then we can reasonably assume she’s in a state of human nudity. Right? Oh, did I mention the breasts? Each of the female characters has two mammary glands, but, unlike cats, none has any more than that. My brain hurts.

We're not finished. With some characters, the conventions relating to fur are straightforward. Swift and James Corden have it where cats would have it. But Dench seems to be dressed in a coat fashioned from her own natural covering. It was so much simpler when the cats were played by luvvies in leg-warmers.

Anyway, we could go on about this for another 10,000 words. The point is that, within hours of landing, the trailer had become, from the studio’s perspective, the wrong sort of viral sensation. “Cats have human hands now. However, unlike this film they don’t exist on the end of humanoid arms,” Patrick Freyne observed in this newspaper. “Soon, some other supposedly prestigious director will release a trailer for another terrible musical where the cast have been digitised to look nightmarish and half-formed, and you will move on,” Stuart Heritage consoled in the Guardian. You couldn’t move on Twitter for off-colour jokes about zoophilia. Yes, endlessTaylor Swift fan accounts went into hysterics, but the consensus among the unaffiliated was that all our bad trips had landed in the same compact package. And they didn’t even look much like cats.

Last week, a longer trailer arrived and the conversation picked up in the same tone as we’d left it. Snarking about Cats is the season’s most popular diversion.

The question is whether Universal Pictures can fashion catnip from cat litter. Obviously, nobody has seen the film and, if it blows audiences out of the water, then the chatter about misfiring promos will matter less. But the studio needs to get audiences into the cinema on the opening weekend. That’s how the business now works.

Just about the only song the average punter can name is the lachrymose Memories

Cats was always a tricky sell. Whereas Les Misérables, filmed successfully by Hooper in 2012, has continued to play in the West End and, thanks in some part to Susan Boyle, gained increased visibility decades after its premiere, Cats now looks very much a phenomenon of the 1980s (note reference to leg-warmers, above). Just about the only song the average punter can name is the lachrymose Memories. Thus advance publicity matters.

My bet is the online kerfuffle will do the project no harm. Three years ago, The Greatest Showman, following little pre-release chatter, arrived to poor reviews. It became a slow-burning smash. Twitter is a big bubble, but it remains a bubble nonetheless. Younger audiences want to see Swift. American audiences want to see Corden (honestly). Older audiences will want to relive their mini-break to the West End from 1984. The snark has only fuelled ironic expectation among social-media wiseacres. Who doesn’t want to learn how this thing plays out? I’m there.