When Cats made its Broadway debut in 1982, it gave birth to the blockbuster musical, becoming an unprecedented phenomenon. Without its impact, musical theater wouldn’t be what it is today. On that basis, it’s hard not to respect Andrew Lloyd Webber’s creation. Taking history out of the equation and judging the show on its own merits, though, is Cats anything that special? For my money, not really. There’s no denying that Cats is a spectacle unlike any other. For all of its creativity and wonder, however, the songs are repetitive, the story is nonexistent, and the whole experience is just plain odd. Nevertheless, you have to give director Tom Hooper credit. He somehow managed to take an already weird musical and make it even weirder.
After his success with the 2012 adaptation of Les Misérables, Hooper proved that he could bring a seemingly unfilmable stage musical to the big screen. Hooper goes into his next musical with the same confidence, but this is one cat that lands on its face rather than its feet. Now that we’ve gotten this review’s obligatory cat pun out of the way, let’s discuss the main reason why this movie doesn’t work: the decision to give the cast furry CGI bodies. If you thought Will Smith’s Genie looked off in Aladdin, imagine those levels of awkwardness sustained for a feature runtime. Sure, it may’ve been silly if the cast wore hair-raising costumes like in the stage show, but at least they wouldn’t look like something out Cat People. Even if the film had nine lives, all of them would be dead on arrival. Sorry, that was two cat puns.
Beyond this major lapse in judgment, the movie shares many of the same problems with its Broadway counterpart. The plot – for what it is – takes place on a night when one cat will be given a fresh start. From there, it’s essentially a glorified Masked Singer episode as each cat sings their own song. There are really only two standouts that’ll get caught in your head: Memory, an undeniable classic that Jennifer Hudson naturally kills, and Beauty Ghosts, a bittersweet ballad written specially for this adaption. Other than that, it often sounds like you’re hearing the same song on a loop. Don’t believe me? Just count how many times they say “Jellicle” in this movie.
So, is there any real conflict? Well, Idris “seriously, you used to be Stringer Bell” Elba plays Macavity, a villainous cat who wants to take out his musical competition. In the show, Macavity is portrayed as a master criminal with echoes of Professor Moriarty. Here, they basically turn him into a magical pimp. Not only does Macavity dress like Dolemite, but he’s aided by a troupe of bizarrely sexualized felines, one of which is played by Taylor Swift. By the time Swift breaks out the catnip, you half expect a cat orgy to commence. Of course, that wouldn’t be possible since done of these furry abominations have genitalia.
For all of its fascinating bad choices, there is actually a lot to appreciate in Cats. Hooper has assembled a cast that can sing with James Corden, Rebel Wilson, Jason Derulo, Laurie Davidson, and newcomer Francesca Hayward all turning in charming performances. Granted, Judi Dench and Ian McKellen essentially Rex Harrison their way through their numbers, but at least they aren’t Russell Crowe. The art direction is beguiling and dreamlike with all of the sets built to scale, turning even the most run-of-the-mill locations into wonderlands. Despite all the CGI in the film, it’s impossible not to have admiration for the people who constructed these oversized rooms and props. Even if the decision to CGI everyone’s body was misguided, there’s clearly talent in the special effects department and perhaps this “digital fur technology” will be put to more effective use in the future. Here, though, the film likely would’ve worked better as a full-blown animated feature, which was actually the plan for an unproduced version in the 90s.
If you’re a big fan of the stage musical, you’ll probably enjoy the film for what it is. If you saw the trailer and the character designs didn’t make you cough up a hairball, you might get into it. If you’re in the mood for something so ridiculous that it’s kind of amazing, this might be the most entertainingly bad movie since Serenity. For me, Cat’s Don’t Dance would’ve been a more fitting title.