Dan's Review: "Cats" may inspire you to scratch your eyes out
Dec 18, 2019 10:02PM
● By Dan Metcalf
Francesca Hayward in Cats - © 2019 Universal.
Rated PG for some rude and suggestive humor.
Starring James Corden, Judi Dench, Jason Derulo, Idris Elba, Jennifer Hudson, Ian McKellen, Taylor Swift, Rebel Wilson, Francesca Hayward, Jaih Betote, Les Twins, Jonadette Carpio, Danny Collins, Laurie Davidson, Robbie Fairchild, Melissa Madden Gray, Steven McRae, Naoimh Morgan, Daniela Norman, Bluey Robinson, Freya Rowley, Ida Saki, Zizi Strallen, Mette Towley, Eric Underwood, Ray Winstone, Cory English, Po-Lin Tun.
Written by Lee Hall and Tom Hooper, based on "Cats" by Andrew Lloyd Webber and "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats" by T. S. Eliot.
Directed by Tom Hooper.
Some musicals belong on Broadway. Others are adaptable into films, possessing universal charm and a narrative that can be consumed over the space of a few hours, while others can only be experienced in a theater where performers and the audience can experience a more visceral connection. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s famed “Cats” was quite the sensation back in the 1980s and 90s, experiencing a long run on London’s West End and Broadway. I wondered why it took so long, yet here we are, decades later with Tom Hooper’s new release of Cats in movie theaters, just in time for Christmas. After experiencing it, I think I know why.
If you’re at all familiar with the play, it’s about a tribe of cats known as the “Jellicles” whose members sing and dance around, announcing their names and personality traits. The movie begins shortly before an annual meeting inside an old theater where a monarch-like older cat decides which one of them is worthy enough to ascend to a “Heavenside Layer” (A.K.A. “death”), based on achieving some sort of arbitrary standard of their being. All of the characters are portrayed by humanoid cats with fur, tails, ears, and whiskers superimposed on them with special effects and motion capture technology (in theatrical productions, the actors get painted faces and wear furry suits). The story (such as it is) centers on a new cat named Victoria (Francesca Hayward) abandoned in an alley, instantly befriended by the Jellicles. They include Victoria’s new love interest Mr. Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson), Mungojerrie (Danny Collins), Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo), Bustopher Jones (James Corden), Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson) and a host of other odd-named felines. The Jellicles shun Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson) because she abandoned the tribe to pursue fame and fortune elsewhere, only to end up as destitute pariah, wandering the streets alone. Meanwhile, the villainous Macavity (Idris Elba) uses magic to kidnap Jellicles and hold them prisoner on a boat for some unknown reason. He’s assisted by Captain Growltiger (Ray Winstone) and Bombalurina (Taylor Swift). As the cats gather in the theater, Old Deuteronomy (Judy Dench) arrives to listen to several cats’ auditions for Heavenside status, including Gus the Theater Cat (Ian McKellen). Before she makes her choice, Victoria shows a little kindness to Grizabella, an act that does not go unnoticed by Old Deuteronomy. Grizabella reminisces on the hard life she’s lived while singing the famed song “Memory,” which moves everyone to tears.
It should be noted that Cats is based on a collection of whimsical nonsensical poems written by T.S. Eliot to his godchildren, perhaps not intended to expound any kind of philosophical meaning. I suppose source material is in the eye of the beholder because I’m not entirely sure what can be gleaned from Eliot’s poems, other than a silly bit of fun. How we got from the poems to a bunch of adults singing and prancing around in fur, we may never know, but it was obviously entertaining enough to stay on a Broadway stage for 18 years.
The only positive aspects of Cats worth mentioning are Jennifer Hudson’s powerful performance of “Memory” and the dancing prowess of Francesca Hayward. Aside from that, the rest of the movie is…well…just plain weird and really, REALLY hard to watch. The fur, ears, tails, and whiskers produced by special effects are extremely distracting, which will probably cause most audiences to gaze at features other than the actors’ singing and dancing talents (yes, cat anatomy is a thing). It’s also worth mentioning that Francesca Hayward’s weak singing voice is nowhere near her expertise as a dancer; another unfortunate distraction.
These strange elements, along with the absence of an actual plot and a preponderance of exposition (“this is my weird cat name, and this what I like to do”) may work for an experimental arthouse theater but is lost in a film medium.
I see it something like this: Whenever the family cat jumps up on my lap, the first thing he does is proudly display his butthole to me. That experience is actually more enjoyable than this movie.