There are three good things to be said about Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Broadway musical Cats: It’s an impressive showcase for dancers, the costumes are inventive, and the songs, while nonsense, are catchy. Tom Hooper’s film adaptation neuters all three aspects. It does, however, have a fully nude but Ken-Dolled Idris Elba, Ian McKellen lapping milk out of a platter, cats getting yeeted into thin air, dancing cockroaches with human faces, and Jason Derulo screaming, “MILK!”
It’s worth mentioning that Webber’s original stage musical barely has a plot. For almost two and a half hours, a bunch of cats sing about themselves, and then one cat gets picked to go to heaven — excuse me, the Heaviside Layer. The film cuts about 40 minutes of these shenanigans, even though it adds a new song, delivered by Victoria (ballerina Francesca Hayward), an abandoned cat who becomes something of an audience surrogate.
In fairness, though, Hooper’s Cats defies all principles of linear time or practical storytelling. Cats is a fever dream, a hallucination, an approximation of what would happen if your third eye actually opened and you could suddenly see into the astral plane. The cats all look like larger versions of the cat Jemaine Clement turns himself into in What We Do in the Shadows — he says he “always gets the faces wrong” when he transforms, which is why he comes out as a cat with a human face superimposed on it. In the case of Cats, CGI fur, ears, and tails are superimposed on human actors, but the effect is so uncanny that it seems as though things were done the other way around. The faces have wills of their own.
It also happens that the actors aren’t made to look particularly catlike — they try to move and behave like cats (nuzzling and clawing at each other, meowing, leaping at random, etc.), but beyond having their ears CGI-ed out and pelts CGI-ed on, they still look like humans. It’s discomfiting once it sinks in that some cats are wearing clothes (coats, hats, cat-sized sneakers, Rebel Wilson unzipping her fur to reveal a sparkly vest and yet more fur) and some aren’t — and it’s even more startling when the cats that are wearing clothes take them off. (See: nude Idris Elba.) There’s also no sense of scale; mice and cockroaches (all with the same floating faces as the cats) are about the same size as each other, and seem to be as small to the cats as they typically are to humans. A later musical number performed on a set of railroad tracks seems to posit that cats are about the size of hamsters.
That approach removes the stage show’s costumes — usually leotards, leg warmers, and extensive makeup — from the picture. And the dancing is obscured by the fog of CGI around the performers, and by shots and edits that don’t serve it at all. The cuts are frenetic, losing any sense of motion, and a few scenes even zoom out so far that the cats become dots, so the choreography hardly registers.
The songs are similarly chopped up, both in terms of bafflingly slow new arrangements and unnecessary asides and exposition dropped in to destroy any sense of flow. Even “Memory,” Cats’ crown jewel, has the indignity of being saddled with “Beautiful Ghosts,” the song Webber and Taylor Swift co-wrote specifically for the movie.
The new song was inevitable. Virtually every big movie musical adaptation has a new song shoehorned in, with the hopes of winning a Best Original Song Oscar. Les Misérables had “Suddenly,” Aladdin had “Speechless,” Beauty and the Beast had “Evermore,” and so forth. Like these predecessors, “Beautiful Ghosts” is a shrug of a song, and it’s distinctly poppier than every song that surrounds it. It’s here used as something of a chaser to “Memory,” as if to siphon respectability from the one powerhouse number Cats has going for it. The gambit does not work.
But “Memory” itself is still great. Hooper’s Cats achieves a few bright points — and not just delirium — when its performers commit to their roles. Jennifer Hudson, who plays the disgraced cat Grizabella, delivers “Memory” as if she could retroactively steal Anne Hathaway’s Oscar for Les Mis by singing powerfully enough. As party cat Rum Tum Tugger, Jason Derulo puts on a perfectly convincing British accent and yowls to his heart’s content. (And unlike Taylor Swift, he’s actually present throughout the movie, instead of just dropping in for a cameo.) And Ian McKellen, as former theater cat Gus, shows up to remind everyone what acting is. Honorable mention goes to Ray Winstone ripping it up as tough-guy cat Growltiger. (Think Ray Winstone, but a cat.) Elba, meanwhile, projects the energy of a camp counselor who has stopped really caring about the talent show, but is still committed to having fun, screaming, “Meow!” or his name, “Macavity!” every time he disappears in a cloud of dust.
Though the fact that Macavity is kidnapping other cats is a holdover from the show — he’s attempting to make himself the only cat eligible to ascend to the Heaviside Layer — the way he disappears his competition into puffs of smoke feels like the strangest possible way of doing it. Is Macavity the devil? Maybe. Like the size of the mice and cockroaches, the cats’ clothing, and who is or isn’t allowed to go to heaven (some mean girl cats initially try to keep Grizabella out of the picture), the rules aren’t clear. But really, Cats doesn’t seem to have any rules at all.
The facts are these: Cats undermines itself in both editing and musical arrangement, barely has a plot to hang its hat on, and is CGI-ed into oblivion. Yet there’s something weirdly wonderful about just how committed Hooper is to his vision, which feels like it should have been audience-tested into something less phantasmagorical. (It’s a little like Welcome to Marwen in that sense — the movie isn’t great, but it’s certainly memorable, and the result of someone seeing a startling and unorthodox vision through until the bitter end.) Cats also serves as a fitting end to 2019, as a death knell to irony. There’s not a drip of it to be found among these felines, and it’s impossible to hang onto it in the face of such total Cats conviction, either.
Cats hits theaters Dec. 20.