Review by James Lindorf
Based on T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, Cats, the musical is set amongst a larger-than-life junkyard serving as a playground for its feline characters including Rum Tum Tugger, Mr. Mistoffelees, Macavity, Jennyanydots, Old Deuteronomy, Grizabella and Skimbleshanks. Since its premiere on London’s West End, where it was performed nearly 9,000 times, Cats has been a theatrical mainstay and is currently touring with Broadway Across America. Director and co-writer Tom Hooper (Les Misérables, The Danish Girl, The King’s Speech), and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler (Hamilton) are bringing Andrew Lloyd Weber’s classic musical to the big screen for the first time December 20th. Cats stars Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Idris Elba, Jennifer Hudson, Rebel Wilson, James Corden, Jason Derulo, and Taylor Swift.
The story remains mostly unchanged from stage to screen, the Jellicle Cats all come out to play on one special night of the year for the Jellicle Ball. The ball is when they each get to tell their tales for the amusement of the wisest among them, Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench). At the end of the night, she will choose one of the cats to ascend to The Heaviside Layer and be reborn into a whole new Jellicle life. Hooper and co-writer Lee Hall (Rocketman) did punch up the story just a bit, adding in some more details, so it feels less like a collection of set pieces that would be a better fit for a Fathom Event. Not only did they add detail, but they also made several significant changes, none larger than expanding the role of Victoria. Instead of merely being a featured dancer that opens the Jellicle Ball, Victoria is now our lead character. The audience is on the journey with her, meeting all of the cats for the first time, and learning what it means to be a Jellicle cat.
Victoria is played by Francesca Hayward, a relative newcomer and principal ballerina at The Royal Ballet. The young dancer holds her own against the powerhouse cast, and in fact, she outshines a few of them. Judi Dench being good is no surprise, and Ian McKellen was excellent in his small role. Jennifer Hudson was fine; her character has a very narrow range of emotions to display, but she was mostly cast for her voice, and she gets to own moments in time as she sings the show’s hit song Memory. Idris Elba is vastly underused and does better during Macavity’s maniacal moments than with the song and dance, which is why he did that less than anyone. James Corden is excellent, but undeniable James Corden, he never gets lost in character, which is even more true for Rebel Wilson. It is hard to imagine that Hooper did anything but ask her to play her Pitch Perfect character, Fat Amy, one more time. While she provides much-needed humor to a film that would otherwise have none, it is disappointing that she is prone to pratfalls and is there only to be laughed at. Such a talented creative team should have been capable of crafting something better for her and the movie.
I couldn’t end the review without discussing the 800-pound tiger in the room, the CGI. There are plenty of unsettling uncanny valley moments where the cats are at once too human and too feline. There is even a ring around the actors’ faces at times, separating them from their cat bodies. While it may not always be successful, the creative team got exactly the look they wanted, and they wanted an upscale digital version of the stage costume. Even though it may have put some audience members at ease, the characters were never intended to look like Puss in Boots from Shrek. Hooper wanted to push the cat aspects as far as possible while maintaining the ability to see human emotions. Whether the CGI is good or bad, it was always a joy watching the actors move about the set filled with gigantic versions of everyday items.
People may be asking themselves if they should go see the movie or wait until they can see the classic stage show. The answer comes down to a matter of style vs. substance. The stage show has an overabundance of style but lacks a story capable of keeping the attention of those less interested in plies and bravados. The movie may not be a dramatic powerhouse, but it does trade a little of the flash for a more well-defined story. With Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, a 3-time Tony winner, bringing in multiple dance styles, including ballet, contemporary, hip-hop, and tap, with the star-studded cast, the film still has enough shiny objects to cheer up grumpy cat. Cats may end up being a financial nightmare for Universal, and it may terrify a few moviegoers along the way as well. However, given what it costs to go to the theater, Cats may not just be a great companion piece to the beloved musical, it could even be a viable substitute.