Updated: Jul 12, 2021
The musical Cats, composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber, debuted on Broadway in 1982. It went on to become the fourth longest-running Broadway show in history and charmed a legion of devoted fans. I will take this moment to admit I have never seen the play and knew absolutely nothing about it before seeing this adaptation, except that it was a bunch of cats being played by humans. I will now apologize to fans of the play, cat lovers and cats themselves, because I am going to say some very negative things about this movie.
People online have been criticizing the way the actors look as cats ever since the trailer dropped months ago. I have seen that trailer many times, so you would think I would have gotten used to it by now. You would be wrong. I find it to be incredibly off-putting. The longer Cats went on, the more I was creeped out by it. There are a few good elements here, but that is a massive part of the production I just could not get past. Add to that the nonexistent plot and sound issues on the songs and you get a stunningly ill-advised final product.
It takes place in a city inhabited exclusively by cats. Into this world comes Victoria, who is greeted by the Jellicle cats, though she is not a Jellicle herself. The plot involves preparations for a talent show, to be judged by their leader, Old Deuteronomy. The winner will be sent up to the Heavyside Layer to begin their next life. Meanwhile, the evil Macavity schemes to get rid of his competition, so he can be the Jellicle choice.
I am sorry if my summary made it seem like I had even the slightest idea what was going on. I did not mean to mislead you. I think Jellicles are a tribe of some sort, yet that is only addressed in song form and I had a hard time following it. The Heavyside Layer appears to be a metaphor for heaven. I suppose that would make Old Deuteronomy God. Macavity certainly behaves as though he is not entirely convinced he is not the devil. Lloyd Webber did not care about narrative, so Cats does nothing with any of this stuff. It is probably intended to be symbolism, but it comes off as meaningless here. It spends no time whatsoever on character or explanation, throwing us from one song to the next without anything interesting to hold it together. My small amount of investigation tells me this is relatively faithful to the source material. I am guessing the surreal spectacle comes off a lot better on stage.
Despite my complaints, the story is way down on the list of reasons I did not enjoy this. To get back to where I started, the look of the cats is what really earns this its spot on many critics’ “worst of 2019” lists. It is the stuff of nightmares. The faces of the actors have been adorned with makeup, digital fur and whiskers to make them appear more catlike. Their bodies are covered with fur, somehow making them seem closer to aliens than felines. I am aware real cats do not wear clothes. Nonetheless, I felt uncomfortable watching these cats walk around naked. It is weirdly obscene even though, of course, the performers are not naked. I just could not suspend disbelief enough to accept these creatures. It did not matter what they did; all I could see was talented actors, looking like horror movie monsters, doing bizarre things. However, if you have been waiting your whole life to see Ian McKellen lick water out of a bowl, have I got the movie for you!
While I did not like the look of the characters, I did appreciate the simplicity of the set design. I would not be surprised if it mirrors the look of the stage production. There are usually one or two significant images in the background which the actors play off of as they sing and/or dance. The idea was to highlight the performers without unnecessary distraction. Unfortunately, that gives us nothing to see besides the terrifying humanoid cats. Still, I thought it was cool.
Another positive is the dance choreography, focusing on the balletic grace of the cats and never upstaging whichever character is meant to be the center of attention at any given time. The actors, including Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Idris Elba, Jennifer Hudson, Rebel Wilson, James Corden, Taylor Swift and newcomer Francesca Hayward as Victoria, are very talented. Each of them gets at least one song, giving it their all to sell the absurdity. A lot of the lyrics sounded like nonsense to me, but part of that is because the sound mix seemed off, making it difficult to hear what they were saying. That being said, Jennifer Hudson’s rendition of “Memory” was powerful, even if I had no idea what she was so angry about.
Cats (101 minutes, not including the end credits) is a challenging movie to review. It is exactly what it is. Its fans will see it regardless of what anyone else says. Any non-fans probably decided to steer clear after seeing the preview. If, like me, you were turned off by the sinister looking cat faces the first time you saw them, trust me, they do not get any more appealing. I have not a clue how they possibly thought audiences would want to stare at those things for almost two hours, yet I have a feeling seeing them make that decision would have been more entertaining than watching this movie.
1¼ out of 5
Francesca Hayward as Victoria
Idris Elba as Macavity
Laurie Davidson as Mr. Mistoffelees
Judi Dench as Old Deuteronomy
Jennifer Hudson as Grizabella
Rebel Wilson as Jennyanydots
Ian McKellen as Gus the Theatre Cat
James Corden as Bustopher Jones
Directed by Tom Hooper
Screenplay by Lee Hall and Tom Hooper