Those of you who have been following what I’ve had to say for the duration of my Twitter career have no doubt suffered through my unabashed and dignified excitement for Cats. Ranging from one insufferable post to another, as I slowly transitioned from jokingly saying Tom Hooper’s seemingly ill-conceived adaptation of Cats would be a great era defining film to genuinely believing it on some level. What you may not know is that my excitement for the project has really been building ever since I saw a live middle school performance starring a few of my close friends. Though Tom Hooper’s films have not been particular favorites of mine (and have even been outright bad on a couple occasions) and the cast was the sort of eclectic bunch that are only a draw because of the absurdity of their collective inclusion, I hoped the film would be able to capture some of the wonder I experienced watching that middle school rendition years ago.. That is to say, a performance that, with all due respect to my friends who participated, was entirely inept and hilarious in the sheer strangeness associated with it all, but was singular among things I have seen. Apologies to those who have had to endure my Cats obsession through the last months but, though this cinematic version did not quite live up to my expectations, I had a great time and my obsession will live for another day.
The musical initially opened in London to lightly positive reviews and later on Broadway to mixed reviews. But it was undeniably unlike anything audiences had seen before and became a runaway success, causing an explosion in the popularity of musical theatre worldwide and changing the types of musicals that would be created and how they would be put on. Much like the live production, this film is unlike anything you’ve seen before. This may be off-putting to many, as a simple but convoluted plot unwinds with famed actors and singers covered in digital fur, but to me it was an absolute delight. Where so many films are risk averse to the extreme, Cats leans into a premise that any studio executive would’ve been right to reject and creates something so silly and even embarrassing that few will be willing to brave the trip to their nearest cinema to see it. But you should.
The biggest sticking point for many who saw the trailer seemed to be the use of the “digital fur technology” that coated the performers in a skintight layer of CGI hair. The results are certainly strange and there is some truth to the claims that they’re terrifying. But much like the de-aging in – another film that many were quick to dismiss before its release – Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, the jarring effect the computer generated effects have is quickly diminished and it strangely becomes almost normal as the film progresses and sucks you in. It is simply the way the film is, much like the costumes in the live version. Despite this, the CGI humanoid mice and cockroaches are certainly the stuff of nightmares and will haunt me for the rest of my life.
Once the oddity of the appearances of everyone on screen is accepted, there becomes a lot to appreciate in all of the musical performances. The dances are amazingly choreographed and solo dances and group performances are seamlessly melded to allow distinct styles to emerge alongside groups moving with the precision of a machine. Though the dances cut between different camera angles far too often and prevent the feeling of continuous motion -with the few long shots being standout moments of the film that left me wanting more- they are undeniably impressively put together. Even better than the dancing is the singing, especially Jennifer Hudson giving a thrilling rendition of “Memory” that perfectly captures all of the emotions of the character and give her more dimension in one song than most get throughout. Though none of the other cast members quite get a moment like “Memory”, each musical number is rousing despite lyrics occasionally being difficult to comprehend. Even the Taylor Swift original song fit quite well into the film and didn’t have the jarring effect that new additions to old works often do. In fact, Swift’s song and her performance of “Macavity: The Mystery Cat” were among the film’s highlights.
Though I went in to the film partly expecting it to be a train wreck that I could laugh at, I was surprised by how often I found myself laughing with the film. Yes it’s amusing to see well regarded actors dressed as cats in laughably large environments, licking their paws and meowing and sniffing, but there were cutaway bits of dialogue and sight gags that were laugh out loud funny as well. The plot of the film is admittedly weak, essentially a talent show among Jellicle cats with an antagonistic character sabotaging others in the hopes of winning an ascension to a sort of cat heaven, and anyone not already sold on the premise will more than likely find the jumbled imagery, fast cutting, incomprehensibility of many songs, bad dialogue, and ridiculous moments to be entirely unacceptable. But for those like me who went with high hopes and an openness to and familiarity with the concept, it may not always deliver fully but it will be some of the most fun you have in a theater this year.
B+ Review cats francesca hayward ian m ian mckellen idris elba james corden jason derulo jennifer hudson judi dench laurie davidson martin scorsese ray winstone rebel wilson taylor swift the irishman tom hooper