Saturday, December 21, 2019

Cats & Dogs: CATS and TOGO

Cats is questionable on every level you can imagine: narrative, musical, aesthetic, anatomical. Only a movie so convinced of its tony, glossy, respectable, good-taste nature could fail on all counts so completely. It’s some kind of amazing. Those who set out to make a midnight movie inexplicable on purpose will be jealous, standing in awe for a true blue unintended wild pitch, a cracked cult classic in the making. I’m almost glad it exists for no reason but that there’s nothing else like it. It’s boring and fascinating, confusing and striking in equal measure. If it was an obscurity dug up decades hence — think bonkers musical movies past like The Apple and so forth — we might be better prepared to take its sheer unlikely collection of bad decisions as quaint eccentricity rather than an assault on our senses. It’s both, of course.

Built from one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most dubious musicals to begin with, the picture matches the stage version’s patchy story and sluggish pace. It’s about a group of cats milling about on the night of their yearly ritual in which their pseudo-supernatural queen (Judi Dench, so good she’s believable) chooses one lucky cat to die and be reincarnated. While they await her decision, one cat at a time steps forward and performs a little song and dance introducing their name and some quality they posses. There’s an abandoned young cat (ballerina Francesca Hayward). There’s a cat that lays around all day (Rebel Wilson), one that eats garbage (James Corden), another that likes milk (Jason Derulo) — all normal cat behavior. Then there’s a cat that rides on a train (tap dancer Steven McRae), and one that sits in a theatre (Ian McKellen). Fair enough. Then there’s a cat that’s a magician (Laurie Davidson) and a cat that’s some sort of evil sorcerer (Idris Elba) with a slinky henchwoman (Taylor Swift). The lonely old cat (Jennifer Hudson) is the best, because she gets to sing the musical’s one good song — “Memory,” the only one anyone unfamiliar with the stage production has heard going in. That’s the full extent of the movie, a weird shapeless thing faithful to its oddball roots. And yet what elevates it — or lowers it, your milage varying — is every cinematic decision that compounds disbelief by the second. Director Tom Hooper, of The King’s Speech and the excellent musical Les Miserables, demonstrates powers of mad erratic imagination his earlier, safer prestige projects have heretofore shown little inclination toward.

He shoots it on a big unreal stage in scope from low angles, accentuating the feline perspective, and then proceeds to populate the proceedings with singing and dancing CG-human hybrid monstrosities straight from the uncanny valley. They are not the stage’s leotard and makeup creations; nor do they use digital wizardry to transpose motion-captured movie stars into the bodies of vaguely realistic cats. It’s instead a layering of digital fur over the bodies of the performers so that we have plenty of time to consider the human form ensconced in this animal texture. They never look like cats, and never like people. Instead of a digital extension of the artifice provided by stage makeup, it gives long close-ups and medium shots of expressive dancing and emotive singing an odd push and pull. How often do we actually stare at quivering lips and wrinkling noses as they fill the frame? We also get long opportunities to trace the contours of the muscles in hips and torsos as they ripple under artificial skin? The dancer’s posteriors, too, are distractingly human under long, twitching tails, in bodies both real and unreal, human and not. Their bodies are only further accentuated by the cats occasionally wearing snazzy little hats or coats, drawing attention to their otherwise completely bared fur. What a marvelously unhinged visual distraction, appealing and revolting in equal measure, depending on the movement or the camera angle. It’s an image of partially-real creatures — too human to be cat, too cat to be human — dancing in partially-real sets — occasionally extending into gleamingly fake city streets where the cats are either half the size of an average person or a fourth of the size of the average house pet. It’d be worth seeing if it wasn’t put to use for such baffling lack of effect for production numbers that rarely add up to much in a story that never coheres for characters that never develop. What an expensive boondoggle. It sure is something.

Far more conventionally satisfying animal filmmaking is Togo, a humble based-on-a-true-story programmer slipped out onto Disney+ in the shadow of splashier family fare at the multiplex this holiday season. If you recall Universal’s 1995 animated picture Balto, about a sled dog racing to deliver much-needed medicine into the wilds of 1920s Alaska, you know the gist, although this movie will tell you Togo did far more than him. Here Willem Dafoe is a stoic human face guiding his good dogs across the wilderness as the children of small town Nome sit afflicted with diphtheria, a fatal diagnosis if left untreated. He’s the sort of sensitive, stubborn man so driven, and so good at inspiring his dogs, that he’ll holler one of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches over the sound of the whirling winds and cracking ice. Flashbacks fill in the details of the lead dog’s life, as he goes from an energetic pup in need of training to an underdog with the unlikely spirit and skill to lead the team through treacherous terrain at the behest of his kind owner. It’s a dog story, a real adventure told with low-key pace, rugged faces against awesome landscapes, natural hues, and beautiful nature-photography appeal. Director/cinematographer Ericson Core has a keen eye for these details. There’s great Jack London verisimilitude to the real dogs and settings, and the progression through the details of making such a journey at such a time with these resources. We meet a variety of grizzled characters and see tenderly realized portraits of townspeople doing what they can to help. And we see the toll it can take on those who do good despite the odds, even after their deeds are done. Throughout there’s great skill and tension on display, a driving forward momentum pinned to its elemental man (and dog) versus nature tale. It has a quiet, patient sense of narrative and emotional clarity as pure and simple as the task at hand. Just goes to remind you there’s nothing like a good old fashioned story told cleanly and simply.

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