2019, PG, 102 min. Directed by Tom Hooper. Starring Francesca Hayward, James Corden, Judi Dench, Jason Derulo, Idris Elba, Ian McKellen, Jennifer Hudson, Rebel Wilson, Taylor Swift, Robbie Fairchild.
REVIEWED By Beth Sullivan, Fri., Dec. 20, 2019
Walking into Cats, all I could think about was the episode in the Nickelodeon Nineties TV show Hey Arnold! where Helga Pataki’s dad, in a well-intentioned but misunderstood attempt to bond with his 9-year-old crankosaur, takes them to the musical Rats. The pair maniacally laugh as people-rats scurry around the stage singing, “Rats, we’re rats!/ We’re furry and forlorn/ We live in sewers, love in sewers, and our hearts are torn.” “This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen!” Helga tells her dad.
“I know, it’s horrible!”
Which is all to say that by the time I became cognizant of Cats – that is, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1981 musical inspired by T.S. Eliot’s poetry collection Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats – pop culture had already hacked up a hairball of meta-commentary aware of its sheer absurdity: dirty ol’ street cats singing in the dirty ol’ streets of London. Now, almost 40 years later, Tom Hooper’s Cats adaptation – and second musical, following Les Misérables – doesn’t try to change that perception.
Hooper (The Danish Girl, The King’s Speech) doesn’t stray far from the musical. A raggle-taggle clan of kitties called the Jellicles assemble one night for the annual Jellicle Ball, where chief Jellicle kitty, Old Deuteronomy (this time around a matriarch rather than a patriarch, as portrayed by Dench), will determine which cat shall ascend to the Heaviside Layer and be reborn into a better life. The villainous and criminal Macavity (Elba) lurks in the shadows, of course, ever preying on one more Jellicle to make disappear in hopes of him being the only cat left standing to reach the Heaviside Layer. Unlike the musical, however, the poised and shy Victoria (the Royal Ballet’s Hayward in her film debut) is introduced as an outsider cat to the Jellicles after her owner abandons her in a pillowcase. As such, the main “narrator,” Munkustrap (Fairchild), along with the rest of the Jellicles, explain-sings most of the musical numbers to Victoria, thus doing away with most of the fourth-wall breaking from the stage production. (Not all, mind you: There are several fourth-wall-breaking shots where because of the close-up, it dawns on you just how disturbing these not-CGI, not-live-action people-cats really are with their catified faces and still-very-much-human hands.)
Here’s the thing, though: Cats still makes no fucking sense. Yes, Jennifer Hudson’s rendition of “Memory” is devastatingly beautiful, and yeah, you could say the special FX are kinda cool. Hayward's performance of "Beautiful Ghosts" (co-written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Swift specifically for Victoria) is also pretty feline, uh, fine. But like the fine mist of catnip Taylor Swift’s Bombalurina sprinkles in her sole musical number, dialogue is dusted throughout, either trying – and failing – to create a narrative or, in the case of Jennyanydots (Wilson) and Bustopher Jones (Corden), pawing at comedic relief that’s never given a chance to breathe, or purr, if you will. But really, the most egregious aspect of the whole film is this kind of bizarre, pervasive sexual energy that I couldn’t quite shake as I walked away from the theatre. Maybe it was the Jellicles’ well-endowed breasts (for real, these cats have human-shaped knockers), or Elba’s stone-chiseled pecs gleaming under his fur, or how in every other scene one Jellicle is eyeing another like the sexiest little bowl of milk they ever saw.
This ain’t no cat’s meow, my Jellicles.