Who let the “Cats” out?
Oof. Oof, oof, oof, oof.
Let’s be frank. When we first saw the trailer for the big-screen adaptation of the pioneering musical that seemed to run forever in London and on Broadway, there was cause for serious concern.
I’ll rephrase that. A lot of people were FREAKING OUT.
The “digital fur technology” created characters that looked equal parts human and feline, as if they’d been in a scientific experiment a la the process that created “Brundlefly” in the 1986 version of “The Fly.”
Dame Judi Dench as Old Deuteronomy appeared to be wearing a coat made of animal fur. What was THAT about? She also looked as if she were starring as the Cowardly Lion in a gender-forward revival of “The Wizard of Oz.”
The primary effect was creepy, at best.
Ah, but with Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper at the helm, not to mention a budget approaching $100 million and an all-star cast including Jennifer Hudson, Idris Elba, Ian McKellen, Rebel Wilson and James Corden performing those infectious songs with the catchy melodies and the nimble lyrics based on the poetry of T.S. Eliot — plus the studio making some last-second digital fixes — there was hope “Cats” the movie might have us purring our approval.
Despite the elaborate production design and the built-in soundtrack and the earnest efforts of the big-name talent (some of whom fare better than others in the singing department), “Cats” is a slick and tedious and weird-looking exercise in self-indulgence.
Whatever fixes were attempted in the overall look of the cat characters, it’s obvious from the get-go this is one of those stage-to-screen adaptations that simply works better via the original platform.
The cats have human faces, save for a few delicate whiskers and just enough hair on their cheeks to qualify for a “Before” ad for electrolysis. They have cat ears atop their heads that gently move as if battery-operated, long tails that wave about in distracting fashion, and fur covering their bodies — until we get to their human hands, complete with nail polish.
WHAT IS HAPPENING HERE!
Dame Judi, alas, still looks like the Cowardly Lion. Taylor Swift’s saucy siren Bombalurina has a noticeable bustline, whereas the rest of the female cats do not. And when Idris Elba as the villain Macavity sheds his wardrobe and bounds about in a skintight fur costume, he looks like the featured dancer in a particularly trippy male stripper act on the Vegas Strip.
I know: This is fantasy. After all, it’s the story of singing cats. Still, that we can so instantly recognize Jennifer Hudson as Grizabella, Ian McKellen as Gus the Theatre Cat, James Corden as Bustopher Jones, et al., makes it all the more difficult for us to immerse ourselves in the (awfully thin) story.
Many a modern musical smash, from “Jesus Christ Superstar” to “Les Miserables” to “Rent,” features a show-stopping, stand-alone number or two in which a supporting character is introduced and gets the opportunity to shine via one big number. (Think “Master of the House” from “Les Miz,” or “King Herod’s Song” from “Superstar.”)
In “Cats,” it’s as if there’s no end to these set pieces. By the time we’ve finally met everyone, we’re near the home stretch in the movie.
We experience the adventure largely through the eyes of Francesca Hayward’s Victoria, a young and naïve cat who has been dumped by her human on the night of the Jellicle Ball, during which Dench’s Old Deuteronomy will select one lucky cat to ascend to the Heaviside Layer and come back with a new and improved life.
(Miss Hayward is an engaging onscreen presence. Her standing as a principal ballerina at the Royal Ballet is clearly evident in the grace and power of her dance moves.)
Laurie Davidson is underwhelming as Mr. Mistoffelees, an aspiring magic cat still developing his powers. Rebel Wilson and James Corden pull off some nifty physical comedy moves as the outwardly lazy house cat Jennyanydots and the upper-crust fat cat Bustopher Jones, respectively. Ian McKellen givers the most “cat-like” performance, in terms of physicality and facial gesture.
As the former glam-cat Grizabella who has fallen on hard times and has been ostracized by the Jellicles, Jennifer Hudson gets to belt out the signature tune “Memory” — twice.
Little surprise, Hudson sings the hell out of the song, but when it comes to “Memory,” I kinda feel there are but two camps — those who tear up every time they hear the opening chords and consider it one of the all-time classics of the musical stage, and those (such as yours truly) who would consider it cruel and unusual punishment if you strapped us down and forced us to listen to it over and over for a solid hour.
As Old Deuteronomy reminds us in unsettling fashion when she breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly, cats are not dogs. Humans have to WORK to earn the affection and trust of cats.
Certainly so, and duly noted. But it would help if the movie itself succeeded in warming us up to cats and to “Cats,” instead of delivering one “What in the world!” moment after another.