Adapting Broadway musicals for film is no easy task. For every West Side Story (1961) or West Side Story (2021), there as a Dear Evan Hansen or Cats (2019). There are several key aspect to musicals that make them work and need to be carried over if a film adaptation is to stand the test of time. The songs need to serve the story/characters, the choreography needs to match the songs being sung and the story being told needs to fit the medium its being told by. A lot can be discarded through adaptation but the trick is to only cut moments that don’t massively impact proceedings. Matilda: The Musical, is an example of adaptation done right.
Based on the beloved book by Roald Dahl, it follows Matilda as she escapes the horrors of her un-adoring parents for a school run by a tyrant of a headmistress. Adding some sweetness to the pot is her equally book-loving teacher Miss Honey, who hides her own sad backstory. In a change from the original source material, Matilda is an only child who frequently visits a mobile library run by Mrs. Phelps who has no idea of her home circumstances. It adds an extra layer of tragedy to an already tragic character. Perhaps the biggest change, aside from the addition of Tim Minchin’s magnificent musical numbers, are the characterisations. The Broadway musical, upon which this film is sourced, is noticeably different to the book’s 1996 film adaptation by Danny Devito. That take had more rounded edges compared to this one which has a little more bite. It had whimsy and darkness but a wholly book-like feel whereas this film is often more upsetting. Matilda’s rage and grief feel more visceral here and her parents more disparaging. Meanwhile, the Trunchbull is slightly more militaristic with a more crazed look behind her eyes. Emma Thompson captures her loss of sanity in a more manic way than the great Pam Ferris.
The look of the film is different too. Adapting a Broadway musical means deciding whether or not to adapt the staging too, which was handled differently by both sides of West Side Story. The 1961 version chose matte painted backgrounds and minimalistic sets to closely replicate the fell of the stage while the 2021 version chose to shoot primarily on location in New York and replicating the real world settings. Both films, as a result, feel totally distinct. Matilda: The Musical manages to find a happy medium between the two. A tiny slice of Matilda’s suburb, Crunchem Hall, Jenny’s hut and several outdoor locations are all that are seen but never much of what surrounds them. The suburbs is more of a street, Crunchem Hall is located in a vast field and all the outdoor locations are…well…outdoors. It feels like a more minimalist (more timeless) design choice but the sets themselves are bold and extravagant. The suburbs are bright and neon, like the colour pallet of an early 70s show whilst Crunchem Hall feels like the stoniest prison imaginable where nobody is safe.
The cherry on top of this delicious chocolate cake of a production are the musical numbers. Not all of them made it in (Telly is a minor miss) and the opening number is reduced for time but they are all marvellously choreographed. When on stage, it’s a general rule to use the space provided unless otherwise required, and the screen should have the same applied rule. From the opening number, it’s clear that Matilda understands this perfectly, whisking us through hospital halls before dissaassembling the set before our eyes for a classic tiered dance. This continues throughout particularly in songs taking place at the school. Not only is the space used, but it’s never just walked through. The ensemble are dancing constantly in choreography that reminds us how important choreography is to detailing the excitement of these numbers.
The biggest flaw is that not all of the Broadway material is present. Several songs have been cut for time and the Wormwood parents feel like strangers. Brilliantly dislikable strangers. This change is understandable, given how often people have complained about the growing length of films but if all 3 hours were adapted, there would be no complaints here. There’s nothing revolting about this musical adaptation.
Disney profiting from IP they didn’t create is nothing new. In fact, it’s been baked into the company’s DNA since its conception in 1923. The earliest feature-length films produced by the company were all based on pre-existing stories like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty but only one would provide the iconic Disney Theme. 1940’s Pinocchio gave the world When You Wish Upon A Star which has become a staple of the company since then, although the film itself is just as memorable.
When Italian carpenter Gepetto wishes that his latest project, a wooden marionette, could be a real boy, he gets what he wants. The Blue Fairy provides the boy with life and bestows upon a homeless cricket named Jiminy the role of his conscience until he grows one of his own. Over the course of 90 minutes, Pinocchio gets swept up in an acting gig, a plot to turn young boys into donkeys, and a fight against a giant whale to save his father. Everyone he meets wants to use him for their own ends so, even if he never said a word, he’d still be a sympathetic character. Even his trusted Jiminy seems to only want the job initially because The Blue Fairy promised him a gold medal, although he goes above and beyond the call of duty as the story progresses. Even when he contemplates it, he never leaves “Pinoke” to his fate.
Everyone in this story is at least a little bit terrible, which makes them come across as more human than the perfect characters of modern Disney. The nicest individual seems to be Gepetto but he has a very one-track mind, only focusing on the son he wishes he could have. His poor kitten Figaro ends up pushed to the side most of the time but he still somehow ends up in the whale with him. The Blue Fairy, though not malicious, is still placing an absurd amount of undeserved faith in Jiminy Cricket who is in the role for only a few moments before Pinocchio manages to set his hand on fire. Even Pinoke himself is quite selfish, only abandoning that attitude in the final 15 minutes when he is required by the story to learn his lesson. Not that this justifies the trauma he goes through.
First comes the anthropomorphic fox “Honest” John and his mute, feline friend Gideon, who sell Pinocchio to the selfish puppeteer Stromboli. There is no explanation as to why they are the only anthropomorphic animals, but if one had to guess then it would seem that certain animators wanted it that way. After The Blue Fairy helps Pinocchio escape the cage Stromboli had locked him in, our protagonist is immediately found and sold by Honest John again. Although, this time, it’s to a Coachman who lures boys to an island without rules so he can turn them into donkeys and sell them. No explanation for these circumstances or the logistics of it but it’s still a horrific segment to sit through. Then Pinoke and Jiminy return home to discover that Gepetto is trapped in a whale and they embark on a mission to save him that nearly kills them. You’ll never find out how or why Gepetto got there either. This plot is a bombardment on the brain and because of that, it’s oddly gripping. It’s just one befuddling circumstance after another. It’s made more intense with the context of this occurring over a couple of days.
Pinocchio has not aged well,. There are numerous shots of people’s rear ends, Jiminy is relentlessly interested in those rear ends and there are some “of the time” depictions of minority groups. The song I’ve Got No Strings on Me is primarily sung to Pinocchio by female marionettes with pronounced busts and sultry intentions, which oddly isn’t as well remembered as the song itself. Then there’s Stromboli who can perhaps best be described as Jew-coded and The Island which features a solid 15 minutes of underage drinking, smoking, and an unflattering Native American statue. The phrase “you couldn’t make that these days” gets thrown around too much but this is the first one I’ve seen where most of it would have to be cut or altered drastically.
As with all fairy tales, Pinocchio has a moral…in this case several. The iconic scene of his nose growing as he lies (which only occurs once?!) is about how lies can grow until they’re as obvious as the nose on your face. The point of The Island is that partaking in “debaucherous” activities like smoking and drinking makes you look like a fool. Even the idea of Jiminy receiving a medal for his work reinforces the idea that good morals are rewarded. One might say it’s very on the nose (teehee) but fairy tales usually are. Arguably, having traumatic events transpire as part of the plot should further reinforce these morals but whether it worked or not is uncertain. Many people only seem to recall the donkey transformation scene and it’s not exactly one of Disney’s most re-watched classics as far as I can tell.
Pinocchio is the perfect film to watch with friends. It provides plenty of shared laughs and shocks as well as the opportunity for riffing jokes. It’s also a good reminder of how much (most) of society has come in terms of “othering” and how utterly gorgeous 2D animation is. Despite being drawings on a page, they are filled with so much life and can be classed as pieces of art in their own right. This can’t be said for the “live-action” remake but that’s a story for another day.
*Dedicated to my best friend to whom I owe everything. I love you.*
The year is 1973. It has been 4 years since the Stonewall Riots and 3 years since the first official Gay Pride Parade in New York. 31 year old Richard O’Brien, who has spent the past several years participating in theatre productions, has just finished working on a script of his own. The Rocky Horror Show, a musical tribute to the science fiction and horror B-movies of the previous decades, as well as the growing glam rock trend, opening in June of that year. Despite premiering upstairs at the relatively small Royal Court, which held 63 people, it soon grew in popularity and moved to the King Roads Theatre which holds 500 seats. By the end of the year, it had gone on to win the Evening Standard award for Best Musical. It wouldn’t be until March 1974 that the show was attended by Gordon Stulberg who was the executive at 20th Century Fox and made a deal to produce a motion picture of the production. It would be given the pretty minuscule budget of $1million which, if adjusted for inflation, is roughly $7million today.
Released in 1975, The Rocky Horror Picture Show follows newly engaged couple Brad and Janet as they find themselves stranded at the home of Dr Frank N Furter after their car suffers from a flat tyre. As the night progresses, Frank’s creation- a blonde hunk named Rocky- is brought to life, and bizarre events only become more bizarre. Perhaps the best way to describe The Rocky Horror Picture Show is by saying that it unapologetically queer. Dr Frank N Furter is portrayed by the always-enthusiastic Tim Curry, wearing nothing but a corset, fishnet stockings and high heels, while Rocky is confined to Golden Y-fronts. On top of this are the very stylish and make-up laden party guests, who are extremely eager for some debauchery. With all this in mind, allow me to tell you the tale of my first viewing.
I was a 15 year old christian who had been, arguably, over-protected by his family from anything considered abnormal. I was also coming to terms with my sexuality, having recently realised that I was bisexual, which was a less than enjoyable time. I tried to be myself as much as I could, but I really didn’t know what that meant anymore because I didn’t feel like it was safe to experiment. Luckily, my best friend and his family are astoundingly accepting and were eager to do what they could to help. These were the circumstances that led to my best friend, his sister, and me sat on their couch watching The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and I was transfixed. I was, of course, familiar with theatre productions and musicals, having studied Shakespeare, Wilde and Webber, but I found myself realising that this was what it meant to be theatrical. Once the initial shock wore off, I was in love.
There have been many adaptations of theatre productions and musicals brought to the big screen over the years, and they have adapted in different ways. For instance, The Sound of Music (another one from 20th Century Fox) made good use of being able to shoot on location in the dazzling hills of Switzerland, which gave us one of the most iconic moments in cinema. The Rocky Horror Picture Show takes a different approach, by effectively doubling down on its stage roots. The entire piece takes place within one household, and so we are kept to only several rooms, all decorated lavishly with the budget they were provided. However, there is a distinct difference in the way these two individual films were treated by their studio. A distinct monetary difference. The Sound of Music was provided $8.2 million when it began production in 1964, which is around $68 million when adjusted for inflation. However The Rocky Horror Show had to make do with a relatively measly $1 million in 1974 which only inflates to $6 million today. Now, I’m not one for speculation, however one does have to wonder why this might be the case. It may be possible that it’s because the former was targeted to a family demographic and was therefore more highly marketable (ie profitable) while the latter was not. It may even be that the studio feared The Rocky Horror Picture Show would not garner a large enough audience and, unfortunately, it would appear that they were correct. The film was not a critical darling, only drawing a big audience for the Los Angels premiere, and so a new strategy was devised. Having had success by pairing 1936’s Reefer Madness with 1972’s Pink Flamingos as a Double Feature several years prior, it was decided that the plan would be replicated with The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Brian De Palmer’s Phantom Of Paradise. These midnight showings proved to be a success, with audiences dressing as the characters and interacting with the film. From newspapers and screaming insults to fishnet stockings and glitzy suits, there is no experience quite like a screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It is perhaps this element of interaction that has allowed it to be so popular for 45 years, as evidenced by the fact that it was never officially pulled from cinemas. There is a certain etiquette to film watching and it is all but abolished during these film screenings, which is remarkably freeing. That is on top of how freeing it is for members of the LGBT+ community who, for a few hours, can be exactly who they are without judgement, especially if they aren’t open in their own lives.
I was one of those people. It would be some time before I purchased a copy of the DVD for myself, but being able to blast Sweet Transvestite through my earphones was exactly the kind of encouragement I needed. It would take 4 years for me to be completely open, and a further year before I found a boyfriend, but I felt a little more true to myself every single time I listened to the soundtrack or watched the film. I most likely would have encountered The Rocky Horror Picture Show on my own eventually (indeed many of my friends were already fans) but it is thanks to my best friend that I saw it so soon. I’ve read headlines claiming that the film is mainstream now and I think, to a certain extent, that is true, however not to the same degree as something like Star Wars. It is a classic to those who love it, but there are those to whom it remains a mystery, and I wonder if that might be a good thing. We live in an age where more adult oriented media have become major brands with mass merchandising, and are also prone to mass scrutiny. Shows like Game of Thrones and Rick and Morty have been known to not live up to the standards of fans, but this has never happened to The Rocky Horror Picture Show as it is only viewed by people who genuinely love it. There are no sequels or spin-offs to judge, though not for lack of trying. Richard O’Brien has attempted writing a direct sequel several times, but for one reason or another, those films never happened. The closest he would come was with 1981’s Shock Treatment, which centred on Brad and Janet (now portrayed by different actors) but functioned as more of a spiritual successor. The film is worth a watch for fans, but only The Rocky Horror Picture Show has become a cult classic because of the fans. The love and adoration is abundant anytd well deserved. I look forward to when we are all allowed to gather and do the Time Warp again.
I would like to make it clear that I do truly believe every single film is worth something. No film is inherently good or bad, they are all unique expressions of an idea. Many people have said that Cats(2019) is “a disaster”, “a trainwreck” or “the worst thing to happen to cats since dogs” (The Telegraph, Gizmodo, and The Beat respectively). Here’s the issue I have with those negative reviews- it doesn’t matter what you say because it is so fascinatingly hilarious to watch. None of the reviews I have found seem to mention this or any of the good aspects of Cats (2019). The CGI, for its faults, is really good and the sets are genuinely spectacular. They didn’t attempt to modernise any of the songs, leaving them relatively untouched, and casting, for the most part, was done really well. I enjoyed watching this film, as did many other people who won’t so readily admit it, and in the end that is all that matters.
With that being said, Cats (2019) did a lot of things that utterly baffled me. I’ve already told you how good the CGI was, but the design chosen for the cats themselves is not. They’re humans with cat fur including human hands, faces, and feet which occasionally remain skin coloured or, in the case of faces, don’t 100% line up with the rest of the head. On top of this, a pair of cats played by Les Twins are wearing trainers but only on their hind feet. If you’re going to have any of your cats wearing shoes, why wouldn’t you put them on all 4 feet? If it’s because it would have looked weird on photo-realistic cat people, then maybe you should have gone with designs more akin to the original Broadway show. Alternatively, if you’re going to just CG the majority of your film you may as well just make it an animated film. Even with the remaining issues, at least the film would have been cute to look at. A final note on the design may seem small but is actually rather important and that is that they have collars. The Jellicle Cats are a bunch of strays, so it’s an odd choice. Lastly, as a side note to readers, if you don’t like the design of the cats you’re really not going to like the mice and cockroaches.
If, at this point, you are not aware of the plot to the hit Broadway musical Cats, don’t worry because there isn’t one. Each cat introduces themselves in the hopes of winning a new life as the “Jellicle Choice.” The words to each song were written by poet TS Elliot in his 1939 book Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats while the music was composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber in 1980. It is literally a collection of songs about cats with no plot. Cats (2019) opted not to follow this tried and tested simplicity, instead adding a menagerie of plot elements that somehow make the film make less sense. This is especially impressive when you consider that the film spells everything out for you. The main character, Victoria, is forever asking what is happening despite the songs literally explaining everything. This raises a further bizarre choice- the dialogue. The original production of Cats is a completely dialogue-free musical, but not this iteration. If it was adding to the film, that would be one thing, but it’s explaining the songs and giving us really bad cat puns. They are literally unnecessary. Furthermore, they made Macavity the villain of the piece. In the original show, he’s a mystery cat who hides in the shadows but he isn’t evil, he’s just another one of the cats. His goal here is to be the only Jellicle Choice by making the other cats disappear with magic. Yes, there’s magic and no it’s never explained. He even has his very own henchman (henchcat?) in the form of Growltiger who doesn’t get to sing his song. Of course magic, in a metaphorical sense, has always existed in Cats with Mr Mistofolees. He’s the kind of cat who’s always taking your stuff and leaving it in weird places to be found a week later. Here, they give him actual magic but they make him bad at it, which is the complete opposite of his character. Possibly the weirdest choice is Rebel Wilson as Jennyanydots. She’s one of those old cats who just lie around the house, but not here. She also wears a second layer of cat fur over her first lair and they make that a plot point.
Thus far, these have all been bizarre choices, but I wouldn’t necessarily call them awful. It makes for a unique version of the beloved musical. At this point I’d like to address the one part of any musical that survives all versions- the music. I say it survives all versions but actually Cats (2019) cuts out a couple of songs. If you were looking forward to Growltiger’s Last Stand or The Ballad of Billy McCaw I’m afraid you’ll be sorely disappointed. Ironically, if these had been left in, instead of replacing them with dialogue, the film would have been the same length, if not shorter. Don’t worry, they replace it with a new song for Victoria called Beautiful Ghosts which isn’t that memorable and was probably only added so they could win the Oscar for Best Original Song. It’s this song that plays over the end credits instead of the overture or any actual Cats songs. Fun Fact: Having made it through the film, it was THIS that drove me over the edge. Macavity’s song remains completely intact and has the added bonus of being sung by beloved pop icon Taylor Swift. Unfortunately they left in the line about him being ginger, which he most definitely isn’t in this iteration. Your character description is literally right there in the lyrics, it can’t be that hard to get it right. The Jellicle Ball also sees the cats being described as “small” and “of moderate size” which unfortunately is not the case. Actually, sometimes it is but you wouldn’t know because the scale of this film is all over the place. They go from being the size of mice to the size of human children, which isn’t helped by having an actual person in your opening scene. It also ruins the suspension of disbelief in terms of cat design because it reminds us what a human looks like. Any real issues I have with this film lie in the following section which I’ve dubbed Those Darn Heteros.
Old Deuteronomy has always been portrayed by a male, but here they cast Dame Judi Dench, who is definitely not that. I’m not doubting Dame Judi’s performance, but it seems to have been done so she can share “A Thing” with Asparagus the Theatre Cat played by gay legend Sir Ian Mckellan. You could have kept this element while keeping Old Deuteronomy male and it would have been SO IMPORTANT. Instead we have to endure this and a forced romance between Mr Mistofolees and Victoria. Romance in Cats is nothing new, there is a cat orgy after all, but these two have barely any chemistry. On top of this, they appear to have tried making Victoria as sexy as possible, despite the fact she is a kitten. Sexualising cats is one thing but sexualising a kitten is just gross. Finally, it seems they couldn’t resist a “man in woman’s clothing” joke when Mr Mistofolees rescues Victoria from a bedroom. There’s nothing funny about a man in a dress but society seems to have decided there is. Perhaps it’s because woman are seen as inferior to men so a man in woman’s clothing is immediately a lesser person for it. Best case scenario is that it’s sexist, worst case scenario is that someone smacks you because it’s sexist. You’re also buying into the capitalist idea that clothing can be gendered, which is ridiculous.
Before I conclude this piece, I would like to mention two minor details that threw me for a loop. First is the use of catnip which leads to the infamous “cat orgy” scene. There’s no real issue with it, I just think it’s odd to have it as a vital plot point. Then there are the building names. Cats has always been set in London, with street names from there being used consistently. The most prolific example is in Bustopher Jones: Cat About Town which tells us all the buildings he frequents. So why, oh why, would you deem it necessary to rename every single building with a cat pun? Honestly, this might be my biggest issue with Cats (2019) along with the shoes.
Cats (2019) was promoted as a “musical phenomenon” and that is entirely correct. This is a film that you have to see. It is an absurd conundrum of a film that words cannot explain. I will not call it bad because a film being good or bad is personal opinion. It’s important to not just judge the CGI, plot or dialogue but on the experience you had while watching it. Instead of asking if a film is good, instead try asking how it made you feel. That is what will determine this films legacy- did it entertain you? Will you watch it again? You may watch it to laugh or to revel in its absurdity but at the end of the day, you will still be watching it. Personally, this was one of the most unique and entertaining viewing experiences of my life. It is a heck of a thing.