James Jay Edwards reviews Cats, a film adaptation of the stage musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, which itself was an adaptation of T.S. Eliot poems. (Universal Pictures)
About a third of the way into Cats, I quietly asked my friend and colleague sitting next to me if I had done any drugs before we went into the movie. Because that’s the kind of hallucinogenic movie Cats is.
Cats begins with a cat named Victoria (Francesca Hayward from Romeo and Juliet: Beyond Words) being abandoned in a shady part of town. She meets local cat Munkustrap (Robbie Fairchild from An American in Paris – The Musical), who invites her to the Jellicle Ball, a gathering where all the neighborhood cats get together and sing songs about themselves in order to convince their leader, Old Deuteronomy (Dame Judi Dench from Skyfall), to pick them to go to the Heaviside Layer to be reborn in a different life. Of course, a conniving cat named Macavity (The Dark Tower’s Idris Elba) wants to rig the contest in his favor.
(Cats promotional poster, Universal Pictures)
Cats is a really weird movie, but it’s weird in the best possible way. Director Tom Hooper (The Danish Girl) and screenwriter Lee Hall (Rocketman) adapted the long-running Andrew Lloyd Webber/T.S. Eliot stage musical of the same name, and the skeleton of the story is the same, with Victoria taking the place of the live theater’s audience as Munkustrap and his feline friends walk her through the evening’s festivities. Of course, to make things more cinematic and to give the movie some conflict, Macavity emerges as more of a villain than he is in the show. And some scenes and songs are truncated or excised completely, but for the most part, Cats is Cats.
The simplicity of the plot and the strangeness of Hooper’s direction didn’t keep the A-list stars from lining up to do Cats. Aside from Dench and Elba, there are plenty of other big-name celebrities in the film. The most high-profile name on the poster is pop star Taylor Swift, whose Bombalurina is sort of an accomplice to Macavity’s misdeeds (and sings the song that introduces him to the room). Fellow pop star Jason Derulo flips and gyrates his way through his performance as the studly tomcat Rum Tum Tugger. In a strikingly brilliant bit of casting, Sir Ian McKellen (Apt Pupil, The Good Liar) plays Gus the Theatre Cat, an old cat who hangs out in theaters and has wound up on stage more than once for his troubles. Rebel Wilson (Bridesmaids) is Jennyanydots, a slovenly cat who uses her nights to whip mice and cockroaches into shape. James Corden (Into the Woods) shows up as Bustopher Jones, a fat cat who wants to be reborn thin so he can eat himself fat again. And former American Idol contestant Jennifer Hudson (Chi-Raq) plays Grizabella and, therefore, gets to sing the show-stopping number “Memories.”
It’s because of its craziness that Cats is destined to be a cult classic, a true midnight movie.
But most of these familiar faces are all but completely covered up by thick makeup, eye-changing contacts, and CGI fur. Although the cat characters have the faces of their actors, the effect is more like the work of the Faceswap app than that of an expensive Hollywood VFX studio. And even with the forced-perspective cinematography, anatomy-smoothing visual effects, and cat-movement coaching, the cast seems more like a bunch of fetishists tromping about instead of actual cats. Which is probably by design, since Hooper elected to go this route instead of the live-action (à la The Lion King) one. And Cats was always about singers and dancers dressing up and acting like cats, wasn’t it? Of course, the human-faced mice and cockroaches are right out of The Island of Dr. Moreau, but if the creepy factor of the concept doesn’t pique your curiosity, you should just skip it altogether.
At the center of the Cats fever dream is the music. And the music is terrific. Not all members of the cast are accomplished singers, but those who are not managed to style their way through their songs instead of embarrassing themselves by trying to impress musically. The saddest musical deviation from the stage show is the fact that “Growltiger’s Last Stand” is taken out of Gus the Theatre Cat’s number, which leads to the loss of the great Italian duet in the middle. Growltiger is still in the movie (portrayed by Beowulf’s Ray Winstone) but serves a different purpose, completely separate from Gus. The high point of the show comes a bit later when Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat (played by dancer Steven McRae from Frankenstein from the Royal Ballet) taps his way through the movie’s most enjoyable musical moment.
And then, there’s the new song, a desperately Oscar-baity ballad called “Beautiful Ghosts” written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Taylor Swift, performed by Francesca Hayward’s Victoria. It’s easy to see why the song didn’t get its expected Academy Award nomination; it’s a forgettable tune in a show full of memorable ones. And it’s awkwardly shoehorned into an odd place in the movie, slowing the otherwise brisk pace to a screeching halt. It’s the one moment that is just as bad as everyone expected the whole movie to be. Luckily, it comes early enough for the film to get things right back on the crazy track without skipping another beat.
It’s because of its craziness that Cats is destined to be a cult classic, a true midnight movie. But, aside from also becoming an internet meme, that’s probably all the success or respect that it will get. Cats will find an audience somewhere. And when it does, that audience will embrace it hard. Although many will hate on it, this is someone’s new favorite movie. That someone just doesn’t know it yet.