Review: “Cats”

1 out of 5 stars.

I will never forget where I was when the “Cats” trailer first debuted.  It was a warm summer evening, and I was standing in a Starbucks just outside of Dallas, Texas waiting on the latte I’d ordered.  Having not been on my phone much all day, I scrolled through Twitter, where one of the first images I saw was a screenshot from the trailer—a close-up of a figure that was undeniably Jennifer Hudson, but with cat ears and a fur-covered face.  It was all I could do to choke back the bark of laughter that immediately rose in my throat.

With baffled amusement being the initial reaction of me and most others upon viewing the trailer for “Cats,” it’s no wonder that the film itself is an unmitigated disaster.  Directed by Tom Hooper (who also helmed the subpar film adaptation of “Les Miserables”), the movie is an adaptation of the stage musical of the same name created by Andrew Lloyd Webber, based in turn on a collection of poems by T.S. Eliot.  It’s one of the most popular and longest running musicals on both the West End and Broadway.  Maybe, had this film used similar costuming as the stage production, as opposed to CGI/live-action hybrids, or even better, had it been animated, it could have been a tad more successful.  Instead, it serves as a haunting reminder that just because something works on stage, doesn’t mean it will translate to film.

Judi Dench’s turn as Old Deuteronomy is unintentionally hilarious

The story is set in London, and opens with a cat called Victoria (ballerina Francesca Hayward) being abandoned by her owner.  She is immediately inducted by alley cats into their tribe, called the Jellicles, as they make their way to annual Jellicle Ball, where their leader, Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench, for some reason), will pick a cat to ascend to the heavens and obtain a new life.

Thank goodness I went into this film with some familiarity of the musical, which is pretty nonsensical in and of itself.  Maybe some viewers will be open-minded enough to treat the plot as abstract and experimental, but the movie—which, like the stage version, is sung-through—never bothers to explain itself, immediately plunging the audience into world where cats have odd names, there’s a vague villain called Macavity (Idris Elba), who can disappear and reappear somehow, and all the characters are strangely sized in proportion to their surroundings. 

The confusing visual effects go far beyond the set design.  The actors wore motion capture suits during filming, with their final appearance digitally rendered in post-production.  The result—human bodies covered in fur, boasting cat ears and tails but retaining human hands, feet, and faces—is creepy in its uncomfortable resemblance to humans.  Of course everyone is talking about the way the cat characters look, and for good reason, but believe it or not, the mice—tiny little mouse bodies with human heads—are even scarier.  As if the visual effects weren’t bad in the first place, they weren’t even finished in time for the film’s theatrical release, resulting in Universal notifying theater owners that they would be sent a software patch with improved effects.  Just how much more “improved” this version is, I for one will never know; the theater I watched the film in was clearly still screening the original version, as evidenced by scenes where Dench and Jennifer Hudson’s unedited human hands are extremely obvious.

Jennifer Hudson performs the iconic song “Memory” as Grizabella

Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography is good and expresses the physicality of the cats well (he also worked on the show’s Broadway revival in 2016).  I wish I could say that hearing such iconic favorites as “Memory” and “Mr. Mistoffelees” made the film a bit more enjoyable, but it really doesn’t.  The cast, for the most part, does their best, but even that isn’t enough to save the film.  Hudson, who plays the ex-glamor cat Grizabella powerful rendition of “Memory” is a high point, as is, surprisingly enough, Taylor Swift’s performance of “Macavity: The Mystery Cat.”  Sure, she can barely sing, and her attempt at a slight English accent is confusing, but at least she exudes charisma and seems to be doing all she can to sell the number, while having fun doing it.  Swift also cowrote a new song for the film, titled “Beautiful Ghosts,” along with Webber, and while it may only have been created so the movie had a stake in the original song category this awards season, it’s actually quite lovely. The rest of the cast, which includes such big names as Dench, Ian McKellan, Elba, Rebel Wilson, James Corden, and Jason Derulo, are wasted in roles that are either meant to be serious but come off as hilarious, meant to be hilarious but come off as trying too hard, or whose presence to begin with is just plain confusing (Derulo, I’m looking at you).  Fortunately, most of these actors are big enough names with established careers that this film won’t affect them, but I worry about what it will do for someone like Hayward, who is making her feature film debut.  Whether or not any of them knew what they were getting themselves in to is another story entirely.

“Cats” may be marketing itself as a family film, but it isn’t.  Don’t take your children to see this nightmare.  Only those diehard fans of the musical, wherever they may be, will likely find enough redeeming qualities in it to make it worth watching.  And even that may be a stretch; after all, there’s a disconnect between the audience and “Cats” the movie that doesn’t exist with “Cats” the stage musical, where the audience and the actors are sharing the same space, and the emotional weight of the material hangs heavy in the air.  At the same time, in this era where an increasingly large number of big movies are being made available on streaming services right away, and the gap between a film’s theatrical and home release is continually narrowing, “Cats” makes the case for the importance of watching a movie in the theater more than any other film.  Sure, it’s great to watch something like “Avengers: Endgame” at the movies and yell at the screen when Cap assembles all those heroes, or hang around the lobby afterwards to debate a film festival darling like “Parasite” or “Jojo Rabbit.” But there’s something really special about sharing a film that is so blindingly awful, it’s an incredible feat that it even exists, with others.  Art may be subjective, and we all may be yelling at each other about the merits of the new “Star Wars” movie for years to come (the fact that Universal was bold enough to release “Cats” on the same day as “The Rise of Skywalker” cannot go unmentioned), but it isn’t often that we as a society are in almost complete agreement on something, even if that something is terrible.  There are a lot of bad movies that fade from memory almost as soon as they make their entrance, but “Cats” is a special combination of awful that makes for an unforgettable experience; perhaps we should take the time to revel in that.

Runtime: 110 minutes. Rated PG.

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