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As with Lloyd Webber’s production, the Universal film features characters from T.S. Eliot’s poetry book Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats known as the Jellicle tribe. In the story, a group of felines decide which one of them will ascend to the Heavside Layer and be reborn into a new life.
Idris Elba plays the role of Macavity, with Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Taylor Swift, Francesca Hayward, Rebel Wilson and James Corden also starring in the film.
The Hollywood Reporter‘s David Rooney describes the visual appearance of the feline characters — who were going to be animated at one stage during the film’s development — as off-putting, verging on creepy. He also comments that their proportions are inconsistent in relation to certain environments, noting, “Sometimes they go from appearing minuscule to giant-size within the same scene.” Rooney goes on to call the film “virtually plotless,” comparing it to a “Ziegfeld Follies-type revue with a series of thinly connected specialty numbers rather than a narrative that invites much involvement.” Overall, the critic found the film “exhausting,” despite a cast, including “class acts [Judi] Dench and [Ian] McKellen,” who worked hard with the material.
Richard Lawson writes in Vanity Fair that after seeing the film, he had more questions than answers. “It’s an existential quandary, this 110-minute journey into a computer graphic phantasmagoria, revolting and briefly alluring, a true grotesque that sings, in fits and starts, a faint siren song,” says the critic. He adds that he left the premiere “ready to toss an easy critical bomb at it and be done with old 2019.” Lawson goes on to acknowledge that he doesn’t want to downright hate the film, referencing its talented cast and crew while noting, “It’s an ugly stray who smells bad and should not be invited into your home, certainly. And yet it is its own kind of living creature, worthy of at least some basic compassion.”
Slant Magazine’s Jake Cole writes that Hooper’s adaptation “gets straight to the heart of the material, which is basically two hours of stray cats introducing themselves.” He further notes that the film runs at such a dizzying speed that “it’s as if the original Broadway cast recording were being played at 1.5x speed and the visuals were paced to match.” The critic also references the peculiar song sequencing, erratic sound mixing and camera moves that never linger on a scene long enough to take in any real action. He concludes, “Not even the showstopping “Memory” has any soul, despite Hudson’s spirited rendition as the fallen, downtrodden Grizabella, thanks to the clumsy manner in which Hooper rushes through every movement.”
In the Los Angeles Times, Justin Chang references the thin plot of the film, labeling it “Lew Meowserables.” He further acknowledges, “And there is, to be sure, some representational value to be gleaned from these cats and their singing suicidal Olympics. Given how often the movies tend to stereotype felines as smug, pampered homebodies, there are certainly worse characters one could spend time with, though I am hard-pressed at the moment to think of many worse movies.” Chang goes on to call the film “both a horror and an endurance test, a dispatch from some neon-drenched netherworld where the ghastly is inextricable from the tedious. Every so often it does paws — ahem, pause — to rise to the level of a self-aware hoot.”
BBC’s Will Gompertz says despite Tom Hooper’s attempts to fix “glaring problems made evident to him by the Twitterstorm,” Cats remains simplistic in plot and visually pleasing to those who enjoy seeing cats still gendered and sexualized. He adds the film “sits somewhere between Dickensian squalor and Soho glamour” thanks to its “slick, computer-enhanced celeb-fest” and several choreographed musical numbers. Calling out a few celebs turned feline, Gompertz writes that Hudson’s Grizabella nails her number and Taylor Swift’s Bombalurina is a welcomed cameo. But not even a furred up slew of celebs could help the film’s tale, which takes “forever to get going” and when it does, “lacks any real conviction or emotion.”
In The New York Times, Manohla Dargis writes that “a doctoral thesis could be written on how this misfire sputtered into existence, though there’s nothing new about the movies’ energetic embrace of bad taste.” Of the film’s helmer, Dargis says, “One problem is that Cats was directed by Tom Hooper, a well-behaved journeyman who is nowhere near vulgar enough for the challenge he was hired for, which is to translate Andrew Lloyd Webber’s money-printing musical to the big screen.” The critic goes on to say that Hooper “made a robust effort,” as suggested by all the busy leaping, pirouetting, stretching, caterwauling and meowing.”
Meanwhile, Brian Truitt writes in USA Today that the film is an “utterly absurd yet oddly charming” movie musical version of the Broadway hit.” Like many of the other critics, Truitt says that the stage production “doesn’t have much of a plot and neither does the movie,” yet there are some “colorful personalities” in the mix. He goes on to note that the visual effects “aren’t as consistently good” as the catchy showtunes, especially in wider shots “where the kitties move in quick, random action.” The critic concludes,”Cats isn’t for everyone — much of it is a cheesy, B-grade affair seemingly crafted solely to take over midnight-movie slots from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Those with an open mind, though, as well as little kids and the T-Swift posse, might find it somewhat pawesome.”
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