I’ve been sitting here for a while reflecting on the experience that was seeing Universal Pictures anthropomorphic CGI showcase “Cats” and how to translate it into some kind of coherent review.
Let’s go back to the general description in Playbill of the original stage musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber from it’s release back in 1982:
Cats has no plot, no book, no real story line; it is simply an arrangement of 20 of [T.S.] Eliot’s Old Possum poems for dancers and orchestra.
Someone might have thought about that when deciding to pick it up and move it to a movie screen (again, actually, since there is a 1998 version which was filmed of the stage production and released theatrically). It’s still basically a “story” about a group of cats who get together once a year and perform song and dance numbers about their personal behavior as a cat. Their performance is judged by the eldest of their number and whomever wins, gets to go to the Heavyside Lair and be reborn into a new life. So it’s a cat version of “Logan’s Run” mixed with “London’s Next Top Cat Idol.”
While it might sound like I’m being cynical, I’m actually a fan of the musical. However its success and appeal relies only nominally on the staging, it leans primarily on the performances (both dance and the singing). Director Tom Hooper (the fellow who brought us the 2012 “Les Miserables“), has leaned in hard into showing off his CGI-team’s skills at turning their human actors into cats. In the stage production the dance and movement of the actors did the heavy lifting of imparting their catness rather than only the costumes.
Here, they focus so much on the “costumes” and the animation of their ears and tails that the dance is left to fall to the wayside. Several of cast doesn’t have any lack of talent in those areas, including Victoria (played by prima ballerina Francesca Hayward), and Bombalurina (played by Taylor Swift).
The dances are almost always subdued and the musical numbers never really seem to allow their respective lead cats to swing for the fences. Each song is meant to be that individual cat’s presentation piece to the judging cat, Old Deuteronomy- played by the always marvelous Dame Judy Dench who was cast to be the original Grizabella (and Jennyanydots, actually) when the musical first opened in London’s West End in 1981, but had to drop out due to injury.
Jennyanydots (played by Rebel Wilson) it turned from a kindly Mrs. Potts style character to a crass bumbling caricature. The rendition of Old Gumbie Cat is made utterly squirm worthy. The sleek-lined cats writhing, while catlike, also feel like something Bob Fosse would have come up with in the midst of a fever dream.
That said, there are a few standout pieces; Jennifer Hudson’s Grizabella being the best thing about the film. There’s little enough magic to spark the imagination, especially in the first half of the film. By the back half it does seem to settle in and there’s fewer closeups on ears and tails and they let the performances begin to speak for itself. The concern would be if anyone isn’t an avid “Cats” fan, will they stick with it long enough to get that far (even if the trailers are enough to get them into the theater).
I somewhat expect that if “Cats” is to land on its feet, it’ll be by way of home and streaming releases. As a fan of the musical, I can’t recommend it as something to catch in the theater, unless you’re already there, “Star Wars” is sold out, and you’re already stuck with having to pay for parking. Otherwise wait for it to hit Netflix, and then have at it with drink in hand.
“Cats” opens at theaters everywhere on December 20th 2019.