Cats the Broadway musical is entertaining. Cats the movie is just plain weird. Who thought it would be a good idea to greenlight this mess? Cats the 2019 film stuffs a few big names – Taylor Swift, Idris Elba, James Corden, Jennifer Hudson, Jason Derulo, Ian McKellen, and Rebel Wilson – into cat suits and then vomits hairballs all over them. (Not literally, thankfully.)
Cats, based on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music that was inspired by T.S. Eliot’s poetry collection Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, doesn’t actually have a story to tell. There’s a menagerie of stray cats who love/hate each other and on one particular night they get together to compete to be chosen by an extremely old but well-respected feline, Old Deuteronomy, to go to Heaviside Layer. (I confess I originally believed they were singing Heaven’s Side Lair which, when you stop laughing, actually makes a lot of sense.)
These Jellicle cats have been abandoned to a life on the streets. There’s a strict code that comes with being a Jellicle and there’s a defined hierarchy among the alley residents. This you can suss out from the film, even if you haven’t witnessed the Broadway musical. Old Deuteronomy (a fur coat-clad Judi Dench) rules the roost, with assistance from Munkustrap (Robbie Fairchild) and the scene-stealing Magical Mr. Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson).
Among the various kitties introducing their particular talents leading up to and during the Jellicle Ball are Bustopher Jones (James Corden), Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson), Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo), Rumpleteazer (Naoimh Morgan), Mongojerrie (Danny Collins), and Gus the Theatre Cat (Ian McKellen). Toss in the story’s major clawed (and flawed) villain, Macavity (Idris Elba), and his sidekick Bombalurina (Taylor Swift), and that’s pretty much the whole gang. Did you know a group of cats is called a clowder or a glaring? If nothing else, Cats taught me what to call a bunch of cats.
And speaking of things Cats attempts to teach… What is Heaviside Layer? Is it cat heaven with never-empty bowls of milk and an endless supply of all the mice you can eat? Will whoever is willingly sacrificed in the annual ritual known as the Jellicle Ball be reborn into a loving home? Or are the Jellicle cats that dance around in an alley and abandoned buildings actually in Purgatory and Heaviside Layer is life on Earth? My head hurts thinking about it, but it doesn’t hurt as much as sitting through a screening of Cats.
There are a few terrific moments in Cats. Jennifer Hudson singing “Memory” is goosebump-inducing. However, director Tom Hooper chose to mute its impact with Hudson’s disastrous first appearance in close-up. It’s purrfectly understandable her character, the outcast Grizabella, would be seen crying. What’s not understandable is why Hooper chose to do such an intense close-up that the liquid quivering between her nose and lip did not seem to be tears but instead…there’s no polite way to say this…snot. (For clarification, this is during a scene early in the film, not while she’s belting out “Memory” during the Jellicle Ball.)
Ballerina Francesca Hayward does an amazing job of playing the wide-eyed, innocent Victoria who’s tossed into the alley by her owner and then quickly gets caught up in the world of the Jellicles. Boy does the camera love her face. Ian McKellen’s dignified performance is a shining moment in this bizarre spectacle, and Taylor Swift brings a much-need blast of energy as she sings the merits of sending Macavity to Heaviside Layer.
Stand-out moments aside, Cats is a disastrous experiment. This musical misfire sets a new low bar for adapting a Broadway hit. It also proves that just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean you should.
MPAA Rating: PG for some rude and suggestive humor
Release Date: December 19, 2019
Running Time: An agonizing 102 minutes
Directed By: Tom Hooper
Studio: Universal Pictures