Weird ‘Cats’ is part-human, part-pussycat faux-feline Hollywood hairball
Starring Francesca Hayward, Judi Dench, Jason Derulo, Idris Elba, Taylor Swift, Robbie Fairchild, James Corden, Rebel Wilson & Jennifer Hudson
Directed by Tom Hooper
In theaters Dec. 20, 2019
In case you’ve been living under 20 feet of Meow Mix, you likely know that Cats, the smash Broadway musical, is finally hitting the big screen.
The Jellicle junkyard cats from the long-running Andrew Lloyd Weber stage fantasia get an all-star Hollywood makeover from British director Tom Hooper, who previously turned the stage musical Les Misérables into a 2012 movie starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway.
Any way you come at it, Cats is weird. Weber’s production—which played 18 years on London’s West End and 21 in New York City, where it set a new Broadway record—was a gonzo mash-up of musical styles based on a collection of strung-together verses by the poet T.S. Elliot, with only the slightest strand of a pop-theological narrative thread holding it all together: something about the cats wondering which lucky one would be chosen to ascend, at the end of the night, to the Heaviside, something like kittycat heaven.
Cats, the movie, didn’t exactly come in on little cat feet. The first trailer, released in July, caused an uproar when critics flipped out at seeing the actors bedecked in “digital” fur—making them appear with smooth, cat-hair feline bodies and cat heads, topped with the faces of Idris Elba, Judi Dench, Jennifer Hudson, Taylor Swift, Rebel Wilson, Jason Derulo, Ian McKellan and James Corden.
Francesca Hayward, the principal dancer in London’s Royal Ballet, is the movie’s top cat. Now making her film debut, she plays Victoria, the white kitten who becomes the story’s central character, often paired with Robbie Fairchild as Munkustrap, the tabby tomcat leader of the Jellicles.
As it turns out, the digital-fur effect is—ahem—somewhat jarring, indeed. With musicals, you pretty much just have to “go with it,” accepting the improbable, and a big part of that means music is going to swell and people are going to burst into song in the middle of the Swiss Alps, on a freeway in L.A., a rain-soaked street or beside a bale of hay in a Kansas barnyard. But Cats breaks ground on a new kind of film freaky when the singing—and the talking—is by dozens of cat creatures with human arms and human legs and human torsos, slinking around with celebrity faces on oversized sets, so the characters will appear “cat” size in comparison. It’s like watching a mad movie scientist’s DNA-splicing experiment come disturbingly to life.
And sorry, Cats lovers—the rest of the movie just doesn’t make the leap from stage to screen with the grace, agility and wowza you’d hope for such a big-deal project. The choreography often looks cheesy, a bit spooky and just plain odd, with cat-skinned people shimmying and strutting and swishing their tails, wiggling their ears, writhing and hissing and prissing and nuzzling, sometimes moving around on all fours and sometimes bi-pedaling on two legs, like humans. The dialogue is full of cheap cat puns—“Look what the cat dragged in!” “Cat got your tongue?” “Don’t mess with a crazy cat lady!”—but little true wit.
And I still can’t get over how Dench’s character, Old Deuteronomy, the ancient, revered leader of the Jellicles, looks like she could easily be the grandmother of the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz. Same gene pool, right?
It’s all just…weird.
Don’t worry about following the story—there’s not much of one. Might as well sit back and watch the spectacle. The performances—some 20 tunes from the Broadway original, plus an all-new song—are all big and brash and splashy and flashy. But the movie is so stacked and packed and stuffed and puffed, no celeb gets much more than one turn in the spotlight. Corden, as the roly-poly, upper-crust Bustopher Jones, vamps through a back-alley garbage-can buffet for his number; Wilson does her Rebel Wilson thing as the housecat Jennyanydots, who gets a cabaret-style blowout with dancing mice and marching cockroaches. The hip-pop singer Derulo rocks the grooves of “The Rum Tum Tugger,” lays down some smooth street moves and a brings it all home in a sexy finale for adoring kitties in a milk bar. As on Broadway, “Mr. Mistoffelees,” performed by the tuxedo cat of the same name (Laurie Davidson), is a “magical” highlight.
Saving one of its biggest draws for last, the movie holds Swift, one of the world’s most successful pop stars, for an appearance toward the end. Appearing as the regal “red queen” Bombalurina, she descends in a moon-shaped hammock for a burlesque-like song and dance to hail the notorious criminal Macavity (Elba), who has a nefarious scheme for getting into the Heaviside.
If you’ve seen the musical, you’ll certainly notice the tweaks the movie adds, like the new tune “Beautiful Ghosts,” written by Swift and Lloyd Weber for Hayward and Dench’s characters to perform. (Swift sings the song in full over the credits.)
And of course, there’s the movie’s mega-signature centerpiece, “Memory,” performed by Hudson as shabby Grizabella, the former “glamour cat” who’s become a pariah to the other Jellicles for her stray-cat fall from grace. Grizabella sings it first in melancholy snippets, then in one long, single-camera-shot performance in the film’s second act. It practically blows you out of your seat, and reminds you why, after nearly four decades, that song is still so powerful; it’s been covered by Barry Manilow and Barbra Streisand and nearly 150 other acts, and according to Nielsen, the original London and Broadway recordings of “Memory” have been streamed a whopping 2.7 million times this year alone.
“Let the memory live again,” goes one of the lines in the song. A lot of fans of the Broadway or London shows—or countless local or regional productions—will find fond memories of the stage sensation rekindled by seeing Cats again, this time on a movie screen. But a lot of other folks may find this part-human, part-pussycat, faux-feline Hollywood hairball something of a me-ouch.