Despite there being few physical costumes to speak of in the new film adaptation of the musical Cats, which is released in cinemas today, there was a costume designer employed on the production. And an established one at that. Paco Delgado has been nominated for Oscars for his work, on projects as diverse as Les Misérables and The Danish Girl.
Director Tom Hooper’s use of so-called ‘digital fur technology’, though, is ultimately the ‘fabric’ in which Delgado’s designs are rendered this time, and the resulting look has divided audiences.
Since the first trailer was released in the summer, with ‘terrified’ reviews of the aesthetic, Hooper had promised that he was working on it (indeed, he finished the film the day before the world premiere, he said). The resulting costumes in Cats are proving to be some of the most controversial in recent cinema history.
The use of simulated cat fur on human body parts is what early audiences have found particularly freakish to look at; the fur is contoured with precision to define the actors nearly-naked physiques. A cast that includes Dame Judi Dench, James Cordon and Taylor Swift shot the whole movie wearing ‘green screen’ leotards and (what certainly look like) swimming caps, with dots on their faces to map points for imagery to be applied in post-production.
There are distinctions between the styling of each character’s pelt; Dench, playing the matriarch cat Old Deuteronomy, wears a grande dame-worthy fluffy coat with exaggerated padded shoulders. Jennifer Hudson, as Grizabella the glamour cat, belts out the movie’s power ballad Memory in layers of diva-worthy stoles (which begs the question, who did she have to skin to get those?). The R&B singer Jason Derulo makes his big screen debut as streetwise Rum Tum Tugger, with fur only applied to his chest in order to expose his pumped arms. The ballerina Francesca Hayward, meanwhile, wears a dainty short white fur which shows off her lithe figure.
Some human anatomy has been chopped; Derulo has complained of being neutered, so to speak, after his crotch was flattened in post-production, while Twitter howled at the sight of some key female cats having boobs. These are weird, weird issues that just don’t come up when you think of other U-rated family movies.
Some cats, curiously, have acquired accessories to accentuate their characters. James Corden’s excessively-padded Bustopher Jones sometimes wears a top hat and tie, while Taylor Swift’s slinky Bombalurina has a crystal choker collar. The accessories were worn by the actors in real life, rather than Photoshopped on later, meaning that there are fantastic pictures of Dench wearing her lime lycra with huge necklaces and the dots all over her face. At some points, curiously, some cats get more clothes; Derulo adopts a human’s fur coat and a huge fishbone medallion pendant for his big number, which doesn’t feel dissimilar to the image he portrays in his own music videos.
The directorial team had a chance to revisit the costumes used in the West End musical version of Cats; the highly successful Andrew Lloyd Webber production which ran for 21 years and has grossed $3.5bn worldwide. Those costumes, made by British costuming legend John Napier, allowed for fantasy without being freakish - yes the audience needs to take a small leap to view the actors on the stage as cats, but there was less room for a horror show, of morphed cat-mans, and of scaling problems that make the viewer dizzy.
Those costumes consisted of fluffy suits, gloves, and stick on facial fur. Easy, right? But in the year that has brought us Will Smith as a CGI Genie in Aladdin, Beyoncé’s facial features morphed into Nala in the remake of The Lion King, and Robert Di Niro as a 20-years-younger-version of Robert Di Niro in The Irishman, it seems that someone somewhere in Hollywood is pushing this must-have technology as the cost-cutting, time-saving alternative to a classic, imaginative wardrobe department.
And cinema is suffering for it. Is the costuming in Cats successful? Sure, if the goal was to give children nightmares and create a picture which would be immortalised as Halloween costumes.