Our Critic Didn’t Dislike His ‘Cats’ Nightmare As Much As Some Other Critics Did
Not to sound catty, but the film adaptation Cats is a feral little beast: wild, weird, scruffy, and unlike anything you’ll see at the multiplex. That’s not a compliment, but it’s also not necessarily an insult. Tom Hooper has made a completely misguided movie with such utter enthusiasm and sincerity that the result is almost admirably bonkers. Almost: it still doesn’t really work. And, more often than not, it’s a grotesque burlesque. But it does have a few warm, furry moments.
CATS ★★ (2/5 stars)
Directed by: Tom Hooper
Written by: Lee Hall, Tom Hooper
Starring: James Corden, Judi Dench, Jason Derulo, Idris Elba, Jennifer Hudson, Ian McKellen, Taylor Swift, Rebel Wilson, Francesca Hayward
Running time: 110 min.
Cats is a classic neither-fish-nor-fowl situation. The cast members aren’t really felines, there’s not much of a story, the music stylings aren’t consistent. That clearly wasn’t a problem for composer Andrew Lloyd Webber when he turned the unlikely production into an ’80s cultural behemoth, one of the world’s most successful and beloved stage musicals. But theater audiences are more forgiving. They suspend disbelief and do a lot of the work when it comes to imagining worlds. Movie audiences are much lazier and much less forgiving. They expect visions that are clear and concrete. Even if that means digital fur.
So now we have a cast of creatures that look like medical experiments from the Island of Dr. Moreau, interspecies hybrids with tails, toes and opposable thumbs. Some dress, some don’t. One even unzips its fur to reveal a layer of clothing worn over more fur. And everyone is constantly on the prowl, mincing their thighs together and leading with their knees in a swishy high-step saunter. It’s like some sort of deranged warm-up exercise in a method acting class. Even worse: they’re all looking at each other with alternating expressions of bewilderment, fear, awe and delight. Me-OW.
The names that T.S. Eliot uses in his eccentric 1939 poetry collection Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats are famously bizarre. Munkustrap, Quaxo, or Coricopat, anyone? Webber, the man who looked at railway trains and said, “That’s a hit rock opera!” pounced on the book and decided it was the perfect basis for an oversexed, hip-thrusting, spandex-and-sperm musical revue. Because Jellicles are and Jellicles do! Jellicles would and Jellicles can! WTF are you talking about? Exactly.
As countless baffled people know, Cats follows a group of cats who all meet for their annual Jellicle Ball in order to decide which one ascends to the Heaviside Layer and be reborn. Among the hopefuls: Bustopher Jones, Demeter, Skimbleshanks, Rum Tum Tugger, Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer. Again, WTF? But okay, fine, I’ll roll with it.
Our contrived guide through this jocular CGI hellscape is Victoria (Francesca Hayward), a fetching, balletic white cat unceremoniously bagged and thrown into an alleyway off Trafalgar Square. She’s there to say things like “Who are you?” and “What’s your name?” Which is, of course, the cue to start singing about yourself.
Macavity (Idris Elba) wants to ascend so badly that he kidnaps a bunch of them, including even their elder statesman Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench). Meanwhile, Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson) cracks bad cat puns. Magical Mister Mistoffelees needs a fluffer for his magic. Gus the Theater Cat (Ian McKellen) sings a self-pity song. Bombalurina (Taylor Swift) floats down from the rafters on a Studio 54 crescent moon, showering the crowd with catnip, then sashays around in low-heel pumps and shakes her big kitty titties.
And, of course, weepy Grizabella the Glamor Cat (Jennifer Hudson) snorts back snot as she ugly-cries her way through the ersatz Puccini power ballad “Memory.” Effective? Absolutely. Like a sledgehammer.
Personal highlights from the freak show: Rebel Wilson spreading her legs, rubbing her thighs, and eating cockroaches. Judi Dench, cryptically smiling, curled up in a cat bed. A ripped Idris Elba showcasing his fuzzy six-pack. Jason Derulo letting his milk flow. James Corden coughing up a hair ball. And yet, though it all, Webber’s infectious, inscrutable, incandescent ear-worm melodies claw their way into your skull. Now and forever. As Eliot might have said: it’s ineffable effable effanineffable.