Producers: Debra Hayward, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Tom Hooper Director: Tom Hooper Screenplay: Lee Hall and Tom Hooper Cast: James Corden, Judi Dench, Jason Derulo, Idris Elba, Francesca Hayward, Jennifer Hudson, Ian McKellen, Steven McRae, Taylor Swift, Rebel Wilson and Ray Winstone Distributor: Universal Pictures
At the start it feels as though Tom Hooper’s decision to bring Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hugely successful 1981 musical based on T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” to the screen is simply a colossal miscalculation. The original was a highly theatrical piece, a spectacular but oddball enterprise that inexplicably caught on with the public and became one of the longest-running musicals on both the West End and Broadway. But was it really movie material?
Initially it doesn’t seem so: the opening number is a dark affair, and the first big sequence featuring Rebel Wilson as Jennyanydots, the old Grumbie Cat and a bunch of CGI mice and cockroaches, is more bizarre than entertaining. “Cats” quickly threatens to become a star-studded cinematic hairball, an overstuffed turkey the equal of “The Cat in the Hat,” that notoriously horrid holiday release from 2003.
As the picture goes on, however, and one becomes accustomed to the weird effects-enhanced costuming—which put off a good many viewers when a first-look trailer was released, prompting extensive reworking—things improve somewhat—or perhaps one just gets accustomed to the peculiarity. True, the dance sequences are undermined by excessive editing, a bane in so many modern film musicals; and the mostly hectic pacing seems to indicate the makers’ desperation rather than exhilaration.
And is it uncharitable to remark that Lloyd Webber’s score, even by his own standards, is hardly classic? It spawned one megahit, of course—Glamor Cat Grizabella’s “Memory”—but most of the numbers have a rhythmic sameness that’s only partially redeemed by the wit in the lyrics drawn from Eliot’s verse. (There’s an attempt to add to the cachet of memorable moments with a new song,
But amid all the hubbub there are quieter moments that, apart from Jennifer Hudson’s rendition of “Memory,” work pretty well. A couple come, none too surprisingly, from the veterans in the cast. Ian McKellen delivers old Gus’s soliloquy with impish delight, and as old Deuteronomy Judi Dench brings puckish spirit to the final peroration on the ad-dressing of cats. There’s also a good deal of fun to be had in James Corden’s big production number as the well-fed Bustopher Jones. (The difference between his slapstick aplomb and Wilson’s slapdash whatever is staggering.)
There’s also some excellent dancing from Robbie Fairchild as the narrator Munkustrap and Francesca Hayward as newcomer Victoria (though her line delivery is not at the same level), and a nice sense of sorrowful inadequacy brought to Mr. Mistoffelees by Laurie Davidson. Idris Elba, however, plays to the rafters as the evil Macavity—he might well have brought it down a notch—and as for the contributions by Taylor Swift and Jason Derulo, those will be a matter of taste.
A great deal of attention has been given to the look of the movie, much more in fact than has been applied to the slender plot that was attacked to Webber’s songbook to make a musical back in 1981. Simply put, the story, such as it is, has to do with an annual ritual on the part of a tribe of cats known as the Jellicles to chose one of their number to ascend into the heavens and assume a new life. The choice is made by Deuteronomy on the basis of a sort of talent contest.
Various felines compete, but Macavity schemes to win by abducting the other wannabes and threatening to drawn them in the Thames if Deuteronomy doesn’t award him the laurel. The other cats intervene to foil the plot, and the feline obviously most in need of rebirth is eventually selected.
This setup allows for a series of musical numbers in the vein of an old-fashioned vaudeville, some exhilarating and others, despite their frantic tone, not. In terms of substance it amounts to very little.
But Hooper and his teams of craftsmen—production designer Eve Stewart, costumer Paco Delgado, and the visual effects artists—have fashioned a stunning if often bewildering series of visuals, and whether or not you find it off-putting or sensually arresting, the choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler and Sarah Dowling is striking (even if all those moving tails are distracting and Melanie Ann Oliver’s editing too frequently goes berserk).
Despite its legion of fans, one might still question the wisdom of bringing Lloyd Webber’s musical to the screen in any form, let alone this dazzlingly weird, but occasionally creepy one. But at least, to paraphrase the point Deuteronomy makes in her final disquisition, this “Cats” is not a conventional dog—it’s a phantasmagorical mongrel that fascinates even when it appalls.