'Cats': Film Review

Cat-tastrophic.
12/20/2019

A starry ensemble that includes Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, James Corden, Jennifer Hudson, Idris Elba, Taylor Swift and Rebel Wilson turns feline in Tom Hooper's film of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.

A pair of dance stars new to feature films sat near me with their entourage at the New York premiere of Cats, and when they first appeared onscreen, one of them whooped loudly, with what sounded like hilarity, amazement and shock combined: "Oh, we look crazy!" It was a more forgiving version of the reaction that followed when the movie's trailer dropped in July, pretty much breaking the internet and sparking full-blown WTF? hysteria on Twitter.

Director Tom Hooper has said in interviews that the extreme social-media response to the first images from his all-star big-screen treatment of the 1981 Andrew Lloyd Webber musical was helpful in modifying the look of the feline characters, particularly since the CG work was still incomplete at that time. But if you recoiled back then at the sight of British acting royalty with their faces stuck onto little furry bodies, or even just the jarring image of cats with human breasts, chances are you'll still be covering your eyes and peering in a profoundly disturbed state through the gaps between your fingers at the finished film. At least until boredom sets in.

This Universal release from Working Title and Amblin is hobbled by a major misjudgment in its central visual concept. Once the idea of making Cats as an animated feature was rejected, there presumably were multiple tests to figure out a digital approach to rendering the pusses onscreen. It's almost unfathomable that this one made it through all the preliminary production meetings without someone sensibly calling a halt to the process by saying, "Wait a minute, those kitties are damn creepy!"

And let's not even get started on the tiny mice with human faces, or the dancing cockroaches, yes, which also serve as crunchy snacks for Rebel Wilson's Jennyanydots, a zaftig cat with showbiz aspirations who milks strained laughs from countless chunky-girl pratfalls.

In addition to the generally off-putting appearance of the cats, the proportions are all wrong with respect to their surrounding environment. Sometimes they go from appearing minuscule to giant-size within the same scene. And when Hamilton choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler assembles much of the large ensemble in the dance number that officially kicks off the Jellicle Ball (more about that in a minute), they just look like hairy naked humans wearing cat ears. In fact, that interlude made me think of a hirsute equivalent of the frantic volcano opener from Goddess, the Vegas revue in Showgirls. It's very busy.

The misconceived movie musical that more frequently comes to mind, however, is Sidney Lumet's The Wiz, a 1978 blunder that shares this film's stubbornly unmagical handle on fantasy material, along with its overproduced bloat and lurid palette — although Cats arguably has the edge in aesthetic ugliness. Small children might go for its glittery paint-box visuals and freakish anthropomorphic animals. But if you're among the millions who have always been perplexed by the popularity of Lloyd Webber's musical behemoth, this film will not solve that puzzle.

As always, Cats is virtually plotless, more like a Ziegfeld Follies-type revue with a series of thinly connected specialty numbers than a narrative that invites much involvement. Cobbled together by Lloyd Webber and original stage director Trevor Nunn from the T.S. Eliot poetry collection Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, the musical gives new meaning to the word "twee." The screenplay by Hooper and Lee Hall has only heightened that.  

The tribe of cats known as the Jellicles gather for their annual ball, where their wise elder, Old Deuteronomy, will choose the most deserving of them to ascend to the feline heaven known as the Heaviside Layer and be reborn. Old Deut gets a gender switch here to allow for Judi Dench to ply her twinkly-eyed beneficence; her entrance along the cobblestones, bathed in moonlight, makes her look like a golden yeti.

In addition to Wilson's Jennyanydots, participants at the ball include Ian McKellen's ragged Gus the Theatre Cat, who laments his younger days of thespian glory along with the lack of proper training in today's unskilled kittens; James Corden's Bustopher Jones, a gluttonous cat about town who's basically a walking fat joke; Jason Derulo's Rum Tum Tugger, a vain showoff whose song is one of three tracks given an assist from funkmeister Nile Rodgers; mischievous cat-burglar duo Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer (my autocorrect is going nuts with these names), played by Danny Collins and Naoimh Morgan; and Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat, blessed with mad tap-dance skills thanks to Royal Ballet principal Steven McRae.

Also from the Royal Ballet is Francesca Hayward, making a charming screen debut as Victoria, a young cat dumped out of a speeding vehicle, who quickly overcomes her fear and finds a sense of community among the wacky Jellicles.

Hissing from the sidelines and regularly disappearing in a puff of smoke while plotting to eliminate all competition for afterlife promotion is the treacherous outlaw Macavity. In a tribute to his wicked ways sung by Bombalurina (Taylor Swift), his slinky partner in crime, Macavity is identified as a ginger cat, though just to confuse matters even more in a movie with scant regard for coherence, Idris Elba tosses off his outer pimp-daddy furs and shimmies in a velvety chocolate-brown body-hugging hair-suit. (Costumer Paco Delgado should think about marketing those for the club kids.) Macavity also has scary green zombie eyes that kept making me think (OK, hope) he was going to unleash some kind of cat-slasher craziness — making this a legit horror movie instead of an accidental one.

The biggest drag in the seemingly endless series of featured felines is Grizabella, the so-called Glamour Cat, whose youthful beauty has given way to mange, causing her to be shunned by the Jellicles. Jennifer Hudson tirelessly over-emotes in the role; she limps around hemorrhaging snot and looking either miserable or terrified, like she's been watching the dailies. She blubbers her way through "Memory," letting loose all her considerable lung power for the big-ass key change on the phrase "Touch me." Cue wild cheers from an audience primed on American Idol overkill. I can only hope Broadway's original Grizabella, Betty Buckley, who was at the premiere, was shielding her ears.

With "Memory" massacred, that leaves space for the delicate new song, "Beautiful Ghosts" — co-written by Lloyd Webber with Swift and performed by her over the end credits — to shine. It's first heard in a lovely interpretation by Hayward, who extends a welcoming hand to the ostracized Grizabella, leading to Old Deuteronomy's inevitable choice. Even for folks who have never seen Cats, that outcome is so preordained that the dramatic stakes are close to zero.

The entire cast is working hard here, and class acts like Dench and McKellen can preserve their dignity just about anywhere. The actors who lean into the comedy, notably Corden and Wilson, tend to be the most insufferable. Kinder, gentler impressions are made by the dancers, who also seem the most comfortable at simulating cat movements; along with Hayward and McRae, they include former New York City Ballet principal Robbie Fairchild as Old Deut's deputy, Munkustrap.

Derulo makes the most of his sexy, athletic appearance; Swift sparkles in her one-song role, descending from a smashed skylight on a theatrical crescent moon, sprinkling catnip; and Laurie Davidson as "The Magical Mr. Mistoffelees" gets the kind of bells-and-whistles showstopper that should make young kids perk up.

I found it all exhausting. Eve Stewart's production design lathers a fairy-tale gloss over familiar London settings like the Thames, with the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben in the background, along with Soho and Piccadilly Circus, where the Jellicle Ball takes place in the abandoned Egyptian Theatre, its façade adorned with feline sculptural features. And there are loads of cat references in the neon signage, from milk bars to West End plays like The Cat and the Canary and, of course, The Mousetrap. But all the purples and pinks and midnight blues become monotonous. While the desired effect seems to be one of enchanting artifice, like the original Mary Poppins, the visuals have a harsh quality that points up the heavy reliance on CGI components throughout.

Hooper can seldom be accused of having a light touch — even less so here than in his punishingly emphatic Les Misérables. But at least in the Trafalgar Square-set finale, which makes use of the big cats that flank Nelson's Column, he gives Dench a platform to do what she does best. She might be wondering, "How long before I escape this giant furball?," but as she wraps her silvery voice and masterful command of language around a playful recital of "The Ad-dressing of Cats," she rescues a trace of authentic T.S. Eliot whimsy from the gaudy wreckage.

Production companies: Working Title, Amblin Entertainment, in association with Monumental Pictures, The Really Useful Group
Distributor: Universal
Cast: James Corden, Judi Dench, Jason Derulo, Idris Elba, Jennifer Hudson, Ian McKellen, Taylor Swift, Rebel Wilson, Francesca Hayward, Robbie Fairchild, Laurie Davidson, Ray Winstone, Larry Bourgeois, Laurent Bourgeois, Mette Towley, Steven McRae, Zizi Strallen, Danny Collins, Bluey Robinson, Naoimh Morgan, Daniela Norman, Jaih Betote, Ida Saki, Eric Underwood, Jonadette Carpio, Freya Rowley, Cory English, Melissa Madden-Gray

Director: Tom Hooper
Screenwriters: Lee Hall, Tom Hooper, based on the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical and the poems of Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, by T.S. Eliot
Producers: Debra Hayward, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Tom Hooper
Executive producers: Andrew Lloyd Webber, Angela Morrison, Liza Chasen, Jo Burn
Director of photography: Christopher Ross
Production designer: Eve Stewart
Costume designer: Paco Delgado
Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber, Greg Wells, Marius De Vries
Editor: Melanie Ann Oliver
Choreographer: Andy Blankenbuehler
Cat movement choreographer: Sarah Dowling
Visual effects supervisors: Steve Preeg, Phil Brennan, Jason Billington, Matt Jacobs
Visual effects producer: Rupert Smith
Casting: Lucy Bevan

Rated PG, 110 minutes