The problem with Cats, the stage or movie musical, isn’t that it’s difficult to understand, as many may claim. The issue is figuring out the point of it. What life lessons are audiences meant to take away from a story about a tribe of cats called the Jellicles (Why? No idea.) who gather once a year to effectively audition for their senior-most member for the privilege of being chosen to ascent to the Heaviside Layer and supposedly come back to a new Jellicle life. It sounds to me like a way of thinning the herd the same way they do in Logan’s Run, only this version of ascension isn’t about age; it’s about being the most worthy. It’s a talent show where the prize is death and the lyrics are drawn primarily from the T.S. Eliot poetry collection “Old Possum’s Books of Practical Cats,” with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Perhaps in the right hands, the basic concept of Cats could be molded into something interesting, and I’m not here to dismiss the fact that the original stage musical from 1981 was one of the longest-running and most successful shows in theater history. But in the hands of filmmaker Tom Hooper (Les Miserables, The King’s Speech), he’s turned this surreal concept concerning the meaning of life and death into something of a freak show.
Adapted by Hooper and Lee Hall, this version of Cats is going to be remembered for many reasons, most conspicuously the use of digital effects to make human actors look more feline, adding whiskers, moving ears, tails, and fur in places that would be very itchy in real life. The result is sometimes odd and often terrifying, especially when it’s painfully obvious that faces have been not-so-subtly altered to make room for additional features. Since Cats is, among other things, a study of movement—combining various forms of dance with animalistic movement—the total effect is occasionally hypnotic as your eyes are drawn into strange and exaggerated behavior that is neither feline nor human.
The story focuses on a newcomer to the group, an abandoned beauty named Victoria (Francesca Hayward, a Principal ballerina at The Royal Ballet, in her feature film debut), whose newness attracts a great deal of attention among the Jellicles. Among those competing for the chance to be chosen to ascend are Laurie Davidson’s (The Good Liar) magical cat, Mr. Mistoffelees; singer Jason Derulo’s natural showman, Rum Tum Tugger; Rebel Wilson’s Jennyanydots, who eats and sings with mice and cockroaches; James Corden’s Bustopher Jones, a cat in spats who eats garbage like it’s fine dining; and Ian McKellen as Gus the Theatre Cat, who might be the most startling and significant thing in this movie, because you never know quite when to feel embarrassed for McKellen or when to marvel at his throwing everything he has into it. The cat making the final judgement on those auditioning is the fur-laden Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench), who has never been more mobile, and her singing voice is still strong and pronounced.
Then we get the cat who wants to eliminate the competition and steal the ascension all for himself, Macavity (Idris Elba) and his singing, bump-and-grind emissary Bombalurina (Taylor Swift), who capture the leading contenders and isolate them on a barge on the Thames, guarded by Ray Winstone’s ferocious Growltiger. The character effectively stuck between two worlds is Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson), a former playmate of Macavity who was cast out but still possesses the voice of an angel (she gets to sing the showstopper “Memory,” ugly crying all the way through it). Every time she comes near the Jellicles, they hiss at her, so she roams the streets like a shamed woman, with only Victoria taking some amount of pity on her—and bestowing a new song, “Beautiful Ghosts” (co-written by Swift and Webber), upon her. So for a little less than two hours, the cats dance and sing and otherwise maneuver around each other, telling us just what makes each of them special.
As I said, the story isn’t difficult to grasp; it’s more about the medium. When you sit to watch Cats on the stage, there’s the shared understanding that reality and plausibility (or is it paws-ability?) can be set aside for the duration of the performance. But when you add a heavy layer of special effects to take out the humanness of the actors and make it feel more like you’re watching misshapen science experiments gone wrong, you lose that magic. I had a similar reaction to Cats that I did to the most recent reworking of The Lion King—you can’t stop staring at it, but that doesn’t make it good. In this case, it makes it quite unnerving and sometimes particularly unpleasant, especially when Hooper attempts to inject humor into the proceedings. Trust me, all of the biggest laughs in this film are purely unintentional.
All of that being said, there is an inherent watchability to Cats that almost makes me believe it will live on as a cult hit, destined to be watched across the country as marijuana laws become a thing of the past. There are drinking games waiting to be invented concerning the number of times Hudson has snot running out of her nose while crying, or the instances in which Elba is clearly embarrassed he’s even in this thing. By expanding the setting out of a junk yard and into the streets of London, the movie is meant to feel vast, but it somehow feels smaller and less visually appealing. In the end, nothing quite works the way the filmmakers clearly thought they would, and the result is a curiosity at best and a soggy hairball at its worst.
Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by becoming a patron. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!