Of all the musicals that have hit the Great White Way over the years, “Cats” is definitely one of them.
Even musical theater aficionados aren’t likely to put “Cats” in their top five or 10 or 50. Yes, the songs, written by stage legend Andrew Lloyd Webber, have their moments. Yes, the choreography and costumes are effectively stunning. But once you get past the pounds of fake fur, there’s a whole lot of nothing there.
There is no plot and no dialogue. The songs are just introductions of characters that disappear after each song’s final note. The lyrics don’t make a lot of sense. I mean, what the hell is a “Jellicle Cat” anyway?
So it did not surprise me or anyone that the film version of “Cats” was almost universally hated when it was released in theaters in December. I mean, of course it’s terrible: It’s “Cats.”
What I was not expecting was that director Tom Hooper would find ways to make “Cats” more terrible. But oh boy, did he.
He’s added more dialogue, more “plot” and less cohesion. He’s overcluttered the film with distracting CGI and jokes that don’t land. He somehow managed to make “Cats” even more weirdly sexual than it already was. And that is just in the first 10 minutes.
Let’s start with that “plot.” The film revolves around a contest in cat world to see who is chosen by Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench, bless her soul) to ascend to the Heaviside Layer, a sort of cat heaven that can only be reached on a flying chandelier. Thus, one cat after another parades in front of Old Deuteronomy trying to make their case for eternal life.
I won’t tell you who is chosen or why because it really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. I mean Mr. Mistofelees (Laurie Davidson) literally saves Old Deuteronomy’s life, and even he doesn’t make the cut. Cat god is fickle, apparently.
Anyways, there is also an evil cat named McCavity, played by Idris Elba, who is determined to get to the Heaviside Layer himself. He kidnaps some of the nice cats and also has his henchwoman (Taylor Swift because why the hell not?) hypnotize the others with catnip and her remarkably bouncy cat boobs.
One could interpret all this, I suppose, as an allegory about religious zealots doing whatever it takes to secure their eternal fate, but that theory only makes sense to me because this film broke my brain a little bit.
It is probably best not to think too much about it. As Lloyd Webber once told theater director Hal Prince: “Hal, this is just about cats.”
And there are indeed many cats- fat cats, skinny cats, old cats and young cats. They are all CGI-human hybrids, and they do, as my fellow critics have pointed out, look hella weird. But, again folks, this is “Cats.” Being hella weird has always been part of the equation.
Perhaps the most frustrating part about all that “digital fur technology” is that it obscures some pretty impressive dancing from professional dancers like Francesca Hayward, Robbie Fairchild, Steven McRae and Eric Underwood. I haven’t seen such a horrible misuse of ballerinas since “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.”
But that’s really the least of the problems with “Cats.” Even with digitally removed buttholes, these feline-human creations are oddly sexual, and all the writhing and sexual groaning and closeups of Rebel Wilson’s digital crotch really don’t help matters.
Wilson and James Corden, who are barely tolerable in the best of circumstances, are given some real groaners as jokes. At least there is only one “cat got your tongue” joke and one “look what the cat dragged in” joke. I was expecting at least 20 of each.
The film, like the musical, has little emotion and no character development. The new dialogue and extra “plot” add nothing to the film and actually detract from the enjoyably freeform randomness of the original show.
“Cats” isn’t bad enough to derail anybody’s career, and Dench and Ian McKellen are admirably game, but it won’t be showing up on anybody’s “In Memoriam” reel at the Oscars either.
So, yes, this “Cats” (rated PG for some rude and suggestive humor) is bad, but every time I was ready to write it off entirely, Hooper would nail a Lloyd Webber showstopper like “Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat” or “Mr. Mistofelees” or “Memory,” and “Cats” would work in spite of itself for a few minutes.
So, if you liked the “Cats” musical, there may be just enough to satisfy you until some other maniac is crazy enough to try filming this thing again.
But, if you aren’t a fan, this film was never for you anyways. I’m not entirely sure it was ever for anyone.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.