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Movie Review: "Cats"

Movie Review: "Cats."
Photo credit:
Universal Pictures

Since it first opened in London’s West End in 1981, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats has confounded and enthralled audiences and critics alike. They were not entirely sure what to do with a cast of actors dressed as cats in an experimental, dance-heavy, almost entirely plotless musical, but they kept returning to the theater to experience it again and again.

Since that time, many have attempted to bring the show to the big screen in a variety of forms, and today, 38 years after it first graced the stage, Cats opened in theaters worldwide with an all-star cast and a few new tricks up its sleeve.

Directed by Tom Hooper, Cats is a film filled with hits and misses that is still as delightfully confusing as it was in 1981. Hooper previously directed the big-screen adaptation of another legendary musical, Les Miserables, which we will get to later.

The film opens as the Jellicle cats gather in an un-named city, though ostensibly we assume it is London. Once a year, on the night of the Jellicle Moon, Old Deuteronomy chooses one cat at the Jellicle Ball who will be reborn into a new life.

Much like the stage show, the film is a series of vignettes, spotlighting different cats as they make their case to the venerable elder played by Dame Judi Dench in the film. The actress was an interesting choice for the role that has been played only by men since its first production.

Dench brings endearing, matriarchal energy to Deuteronomy that is refreshing, even though her voice is not nearly up to the vocal demands of singing the role. Instead, she acts her way through them, singing what she can and delivering the rest in a lilting sing-song voice reminiscent of Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady.

I have seen a lot of commentary ahead of the film’s release remarking on the inexplicable plot of the film, but in truth, it is explained more fully in between these vignettes than it ever was on stage.

Hooper even allows Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson) and Bustopher Jones (James Corden) a few moments to talk about the life they would choose if they were sent back to the Heavyside Layer, which is also given more definition than the stage show.

Despite these little nods of exposition, however, Hooper’s adaptation works best when he remembers the show’s roots.

The dance numbers, in particular, are stunning and led by screen newcomer Francesca Hayward, a principal dancer with the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden. Hayward’s is an emotive and expressive dancer and her character, Victoria--little more than a featured dance role on stage--is given more room to grow in the film.

Also of note is the incomparable Jennifer Hudson in the role of Grizzabella, the Glamour Cat, who gives a soulful, heart-wrenching performance of the song “Memory” with little embellishment.

Will it become the defining version of the song? No, but it is haunting and beautiful down to her last, almost imperceptible note.

Speaking of imperceptible, let’s get back to Les Miserables. Much like in that screen adaptation, in Cats Tom Hooper had his performers singing their roles live while filming, recording their actual performances of the song.

This is a brilliant idea, in theory, as it allows the actors to fully work through and perform the songs as the characters in the moment of the scene. Much like Les Mis, however, the sound mix was so bad in places that the singing could barely be heard.

A prime example came in Jason Derulo’s performance as the Rum Tum Tugger. Arguably one of the more entertaining performances in the show, the audience in the screening I attended could barely hear what he was singing over the instrumental accompaniment, and while you’ll hear no complaints from me about watching Derulo dance around on screen all decked out in skin-tight CGI fur, a few lyrics in the mix would have been nice.

Speaking of CGI, Cats has taken heat since the first trailer premiered for the look of its feline characters and their digital fur. While some improvements were made to the overall look, there were still moments when it became too much.

I have a feeling Hooper’s crew was going for “realism.”

That’s commendable, I suppose, but everyone in the theater knew we were watching people dressed as cats. We knew that when we bought the ticket. It’s why we were there!

No amount of motion capture-CGI fur would have convinced us otherwise, and honestly, it would have been nice to see practical effects and make-up on the actors instead.

It certainly would have allowed the actors to more fully feel and realize their characters—you could tell some of them were having a problem with that. It might also have left fewer filmgoers feeling as though they’d been watching something entirely more perverse than was intended.

Cats is a sensual show to begin with, but I nearly needed a fan for a couple of those scenes, myself, and I am no prude.

All of that said, Cats is not a great film; parts of it aren’t even a good film. It is, however, an enthralling, magical spectacle of a film for anyone willing to take the journey.

As the credits rolled in the small movie theater in East Texas where I saw the film, I watched the audience file from the theater. There was a smile on every face, and even the oldest patrons stepped a little lighter on the way out of the theater than they did coming in, and that is possibly the best evidence I can offer you.

Cats is playing in theatres all over the world.