Cats is an odd duck. One of the longest-running musicals in West End and Broadway history, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s revolutionary creation is based on a collection of poems (T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats) and lacks a traditional story structure. So it relies instead on its infectious charm and arguably the best music of Webber’s career.
The musical is a series of vignettes designed to introduce the audience to a colorful group of London felines, known as Jellicle cats. The animals are essentially auditioning for Old Deuteronomy, their leader, who will select a cat to be “reborn” and journey to the Heaviside Layer. It’s all wonderfully weird, and more than just a little mystical. But it’s an admittedly tough fit for the screen, which probably explains why it’s taken 38 years to reach the cinema.
Enter Tom Hooper. The director already has the screen version of Les Miserables under his belt and did even better with The Danish Girl and The King’s Speech. So he seems a logical choice. But early reactions to the Cats trailer was negative, and let’s remember that Les Miz was not without missteps. (Who can forget the incessantly moveable camera and the vocally immoveable Russell Crowe?)
Well, Webber fans will be glad to know Cats avoids catastrophe and, despite a slow start, is actually quite appealing. Relying on Webber’s memorable music and a heavy dose of nostalgia for the stage version, the film is passable entertainment for not just the uninitiated but also fans of the musical. Even the digital alterations, designed to make the actors more cat-like, are reasonably effective.
Still, Hooper does cough up a few hairballs. For instance, his shaky camera, which is most noticeable in the first 30 minutes, is ill-suited to the subject. (Thankfully, cinematographer Christopher Ross’s technique becomes more patient and less frenetic as the film progresses, even allowing extended and mercifully calm close-ups.) And then there’s Rebel Wilson as Jennyanydots. Though her song contains irresistibly cute art direction, Wilson can’t sing, can’t make us laugh and is needlessly distracting in badly conceived, spoken interjections.
Musically the movie is adequate. As with Les Miserables, performers sing their parts live but are occasionally upstaged by the swirling camera, the imaginative visuals and their own vocal inadequacies. And “Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer” is mostly spoken, thus ruining its melody, which was rather limited to begin with. However, few would question the performance bona fides of Jennifer Hudson as Grizabella (singing “Memory”), Taylor Swift as Bombalurina (performing “Macavity: the Mystery Cat”) and relative newcomer Laurie Davidson as Mr. Mistoffelees.
The rest of the cast includes big names such as James Corden as Bustopher Jones, Ray Winstone as Growltiger and Idris Elba as Macavity. But it’s Judi Dench as Old Deuteronomy and Ian McKellen as Gus the Theatre Cat who save the musical from mediocrity. Their voices aren’t particularly strong, but their acting is the cat’s pajamas.
The most surprising element is Victoria. On stage, the character is the lead dancer but stays mostly silent. But Hooper, who write the screenplay with Lee Hall, apparently thought the idea of having the cats explain themselves directly to the audience needed to be tweaked. So Victoria is changed into the lone non-Jellicle cat, and the cats introduce themselves to her. She even gets a brand-new song, “Beautiful Ghosts,” written by Webber and Swift. But Victoria is also still the lead dancer, and with the Royal Ballet’s Francesca Hayward in the role, quality is assured.
Perhaps the film’s greatest accomplishment is that it might inspire those who have never seen the stage musical to do so, or to at least buy the West End or Broadway cast recording. For, to paraphrase Gus the Theatre Cat: These modern productions are all very well, but there's nothing to equal, from what I hear tell, that moment of mystery when Webber made history.