The sad state of the movie musical is that for every interesting original one that comes along every few decades, if that, there are too many attempts to rehash musicals that were Broadway hits, and therefore, deemed popular. Personally, I never saw Cats when it was on Broadway, though it was impossible to avoid the incessant TV commercials that declared “Now and forever at the Winter Garden Theater” – it was replaced by the jukebox musical Mamma Mia! In 2001.
As Cats opens with its far-too-familiar overture, we meet Victoria (Francesca Hayward), a naïve young cat that’s arrived into London’s West End theater district. She’s promptly accosted by a number of street cats, singing about “Jellicle Cats” – a term, no less a word, I have never heard before. Apparently, this comes from creator Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s original source material for the musical, an unpublished (gee, I wonder why?) T.S. Eliot poem. All the cats are preparing for the annual “Jellicle Ball” where the aging “Old Deuteronomy” (Dame Judi Dench) will decide which Jellicle cat will get an extra life. That’s it. That’s the entire plot.
Along with Victoria, we proceed to meet a number of different cats like Jason Derulo’s Rum Tum Tugger, Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson) and James Corden’s Bustopher Jones, who proceed to sing songs about themselves before disappearing without a trace in lieu of actually adding anything significant to the story. The point seems to be to explain to Victoria that there are all sorts of cats – including a pair of… wait for it… cat burglars. (That’s them in the picture above.) Maybe these songs wouldn’t seem so inane if the cats weren’t called such dumb names, but maybe this is something we can blame on T.S. Elliot, as well?
Musicals like Cats don’t run for decades if they don’t have their fans, so I don’t want to completely demoralize those poor, ignorant Cats fans entirely. Even so, it’s rather puzzling to me that a musical written by arguably one of the most respected composers of the genre seems to be have absolutely zero plot. It’s literally just a series of bad song and dance numbers about cats with mostly ridiculous and silly names that you wonder how anyone could possibly take any of it seriously.
The original musical was considered ground-breaking for its cat costumes. For the movie, director Tom Hooper (Les Miserables) opts to have his performers in skintight outfits covered in CGI fur with a CG tail and twitching CG ears. It’s not even so much these odd-looking humanoid cats that throws the viewer off, as much as the fact that the songs they’re singing are mostly terrible, and have I mentioned this yet? NO PLOT.
Simply and plainly, Cats feels like a dramatic overreach by Hooper to try to make something out of what’s clearly not a very good musical, and he does so by catering to the potential kiddie audience with the movie’s PG rating. The humor involves your garden variety pratfalls and cat puns, none of them particularly funny, so it’s not even entertaining as a comedy. The worst of this comes from Wilson and Corden, two performers who tend to be so nauseatingly bad, it’s shocking that so much of the early film depends on them.
This is not to take anything away from the lovely and graceful Hayward, a film newcomer from the world of ballet, who is actually quite decent as the audience’s entry into this world. Her acting ability is proven by the fact she can pretend that what she (and we) are watching is even vaguely interesting or entertaining, rather than absolutely ludicrous. (It might be weird to admit that I’m not sure I would find Hayward nearly as attractive if she wasn’t a perfectly-preened cat.)
The high watermark for the movie is Jennifer Hudson’s Grizabella showing up, singing a brief cadence of the Broadway classic “Memory” about an hour into the movie, then vanishing for another 45 minutes for more cat shenanigans. That appearance is followed by Howard performing the original ballad “Beautiful Ghosts,” co-written by Taylor Swift with Webber. It’s actually quite a nice song, much better than Swift’s own performance, not singing about her unnamed character but about Idris Elba’s Macavity, the main villain of the piece. Macavity’s only motivation is to try to sabotage the “Jellicle Ball” – seriously, at a certain point, I was ready to throw something at the screen anytime someone even SAID (or sang) the word “jellicle” – and receive the award of an extra life himself. (Fine. I guess that’s sort of a plot.)
All in all, Elba isn’t terrible, and neither is Judi Dench, but they only can do so much to elevate material that’s gone so down the wormhole of awful you wonder if maybe you’re missing something. Was this just a good paycheck or could these esteemed actors actually be (shudder) Cats fans?! (At a certain point, I wondered if a movie using REAL cats with their voices provided by actors ala Disney+’s Lady and the Tramp would have been better. THAT is how much I hated this movie.)
At times while watching Cats, I wondered what must have been going through Andrew Lloyd Webber’s brain while he was writing this – it was the early ‘80s, so it could have been any number of illicit substances – but as someone who actually saw the equally terrible Starlight Express in London in the late ‘80s, Cats probably seemed like a more viable musical to adapt into a movie.
The dance numbers, choreographed by no-less-than Hamilton’s Tony-winning dance choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler aren’t bad, but they’re performed to music that seems so dated you wonder if maybe everything retro isn’t necessarily worthwhile.
When Hudson returns, the movie gets better again, as she sings an incredibly emotional full version of “Memory.” While she may not get awards attention for this small but powerful performance, watch out for her portrayal of Aretha Franklin in next year’s Respect, since she clearly seems ready for that second Oscar.
By the end, Cats did start to grow on me, but it was just a little too late, since so much leading up to its climactic ending was so grueling to sit through, it couldn’t easily be forgiven or forgotten.
As much as a I love a good movie musical, Cats isn’t one, and Hooper just doesn’t have enough in his filmmaking repertoire (including his chosen cast) to save the movie from being equally awful. Cats is indeed garbage… now and forever.
Cats opens on Friday, December 20 with previews on Thursday night.