Cats Descends Into the Unnerving Depths of the Uncanny Alley

This is the real trailer for a real movie that is really being released in theaters this Christmas. Cats, the nearly plot-free Andrew Lloyd Webber stage musical about cats introducing themselves and trying to get into heaven, is about to be a major motion picture. Director Tom Hooper, the guy who robbed David Fincher of what should have been his Oscar for Social Network, and thought it was a good idea to shoot Les Miserables entirely in close-ups, has now presented us with a taste of his unique vision for the popular, but seemingly uncinematic, source material.

Rather than dressing up the eclectic cast in fur costumes and makeup like in the long-running stage show, the cats in the film adaptation are motion-capture creations. The results have similarly human proportions to the stage performers, but now everything has a weird, weightless digital gloss. As James Corden put it in the behind-the-scenes feature, "They're cats, but they're people!" More alarmingly, perhaps, is that they're cats, but with human hands.

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We'll give the film some credit: It's somehow not quite as frightening as we imagined it could be. With some of the characters, the human and cat-like features are blended just well enough that they end up looking kind of cool. Idris Elba, Judi Dench and Ian McKellen fare better than most of the cast in their cat-person designs.

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Other times, however, the human facial features look as if they were pasted onto cat bodies, like some advanced version of a face-swap app. This is not cool. The longer you stare at it, the more intense your nightmares will be.

These cats have human-shaped breasts but -- thank heaven for small favors -- neither nipples nor any visible genitalia. Once you realize that, you cannot unnotice it, or stop thinking about the implications. On the plus side, that will keep you awake at night, staving off the terrifying dreams.

The general impression is that Cats will be comparable to one of Robert Zemeckis' unsettling motion-capture follies, like The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol, which made similarly wrong turns into the uncanny valley. However, what makes Cats even weirder than those films, is that the digital characters don't exist in digital spaces.

Hooper constructed real sets built to the scale of a cat's height. As a work of production design, it's probably going to be the most impressive element of this movie, and the most likely to have actual pay-off for the team once awards season arrives. But having these motion-capture cats interacting in real settings makes the whole experience even stranger-looking. Integrating animated characters into real sets is challenging, and while a lot of special effects-heavy films pull it off, the feline/human hybrids of Cats appear exceedingly fake, and even otherworldly, when compared to their surroundings.

Obviously special effects can improve between a trailer and the theatrical release, but can they really make this bizarrely conceived project work? Probably not. However, we have to be honest: This is the sort of train wreck we can get hyped for. It's just so bizarre that it's shaping up to be as captivating as it is repulsive.

Directed by Tom Hooper, Cats stars James Corden, Judi Dench, Jason Derulo, Idris Elba, Jennifer Hudson, Ian McKellen, Taylor Swift, Rebel Wilson and Francesca Hayward. The film opens Dec. 20.

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