December 2019 and January 2020 have given us two of the strangest movies back to back – Cats and Dolittle.
Now, there’s a lot to say about this films: CGI, whether they were needed, how they’re both adaptations and so on. But the more interesting aspect is how they were sold, namely the “Star Power.”
That’s what I wanted to focus on with this post – the importance and changes of star power.
WHAT IS A MOVIE STAR?
For those uninitiated, a movie star is an actor who’s famous for their leading roles in motion pictures. Back in the days of early Hollywood this was described as “Picture Personalities,” which hints at a greater celebrity beyond acting talent.
From a business perspective, there’s an element of bankability on them; with names used to promote movies in trailers and posters. There’s a recognisability to them which draws people to watching the films.
The role has changed since its inception. Whether it’s the dancers, or comedians in early black and white films like Laurel and Hardy, or Charlie Chaplin, or the musical boom of the 40s and 50s with the likes of Judy Garland and Gene Kelly, the movie star had a personality and talent that drew people to their films.
Whether it was live action or animation, there was a fundamental business-savvy to having a star attached.
THE MODERN STAR
Going back to the term “Picture Personalities” it means there’s an element to the star beyond the acting talent – creating a likable, authentic, public persona. Often, it’s the story behind the actor that can be just as enticing as the characters they play.
Most importantly, our relationships with movie stars has changed. We live in a 24 hour news cycle of Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and all manner of social media. It’s easier than ever to see what your favourite movie star has tweeted out and creates a more personal connection than ever – especially compared to the talkies of yesteryear.
Which brings us to one of the more interesting aspects of modern media – the diminishing importance of stardom.
WHAT’S THE DEAL WITH CATS AND DOLITTLE?
Both of these films are chock full of stars. Whether they’re voicing weird CGI animals, animal-humans, or (in the case of Robert Downey Jr.) fresh off the cultural phenomenon of a generation.
Yet, these films are predicted to lose millions off their $170+ million budgets. Which is slightly amazing when you consider the role stars have played in the past. Not to mention that both are based on pre-existing IP.
The musical Cats has grossed roughly $4 billion throughout its run, and Dolittle (although perhaps not as popular) draws inspiration from the 1967 movie Doctor Dolittle, which also got an Eddie Murphy reboot in the 90s.
Cats has an issue in story. Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Elliot, as well as the musical don’t “really” have a great deal of story. Ultimately, it’s about the songs, dancing, and music. There are of course movie-exclusive issues too – creepy CGI, strange performances, and all the cats having a weird sexual energy to them.
The important thing is how it was marketed – a star-studded experience starring Dame Judi Dench, Sir Ian McKellen, James Corden, Jennifer Hudson, Rebel Wilson, Idris Elba, and Taylor Swift.
Dolittle has similar issues. The story is all over the place. It’s kind of amazing how weird this story is. To summarise, Doctor Dolittle lives with his animal friends after losing his wife. The Queen becomes ill, and Dolittle must go on a magical quest to find the cure. There’s also a rival Doctor … honestly it felt like a slog at points, and very “immature” given the talent they had. Yeah, I know it’s a kid’s film, but when you’re advertising Robert Downey Jr. fresh off Avengers you have to think there’s something out there for adults.
The film ends on a very very long fart joke. I think that’s when I checked out. Again, there were some big A-listers attached to this: Robert Downey Jr., Tom Holland, Selina Gomez, Rami Malik, John Cena, Octavia Spencer, Emma Thompson, Kumali Nanjiani, Craig Robinson, Antonio Banderas, Marion Cotillard, and Ralph Fiennes – that is a lot of Golden Globes, BAFTAs, Oscars and nominations between them.
I think Selina Gomez was the giraffe? That’s the thing, I think I enjoyed Cats more because it was at least interesting enough to keep me watching. With Dolittle I just tried figuring out who voiced who.
The question is, why are these movies bombing so hard? Between the two Universal is expected to lose roughly $170 million!
I think this is an issue regarding blockbusters more than anything else.
Even looking at superhero movies, you have to consider why these stars won us over to begin with. RDJ, Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth were certainly good leads, but they started off in their own movies before playing off each other from Avengers onwards. We got a sense of their personalities and acting chops.
I think with Cats and Dolittle they don’t enable the actors to show off what they’re fully capable of – instead it just feels like a name on a list. Perhaps this tactic could have worked better in the 50s, but that was because they were fully front and centre.
Looking at the more independent sector, we’ve seen movie stars still bring audiences in. But I think that’s because they’re given more to work with, and we get to see their journey. We saw Joaquin Phoenix not only sell Joker but make the performance his own. Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper not only revived the plot from A Star is Born but also gave an updated spin on it. And we saw RDJ’s personal and professional transformation of 10 years-worth of Iron Man.
The fact is we’re interested in movie stars; perhaps more than ever. We follow their Tweets, we like their posts, and we enjoy seeing how they change throughout their career.
When stars are just a name in the trailer, we lose that connection that made them a “Picture Personality,” to begin with.
… or we just really don’t like CGI animals.