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Cats (A Movie Review)

Updated: Aug 18, 2023


CATS (2019)

Starring Francesca Hayward, Idris Elba, Rebel Wilson, Ian McKellen, James Corden, Judi Dench, Taylor Swift, Ray Winstone, Jennifer Hudson, Laurie Davidson, Robbie Fairchild, Jason Derulo, Laurent Bourgeois, Naoimh Morgan, Larry Bourgeois, Mette Towley, Steven Mcrae, Bluey Robinson, Daniela Norman, Zizi Strallen and Melissa Madden-Gray.

Screenplay by Lee Hall & Tom Hooper.

Directed by Tom Hooper.

Distributed by Universal Pictures. 110 minutes. Rated PG.

Who would have thought that there would be an audience for a musical based upon T.S. Eliot’s 1939 collection of poetry called Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats?

Well, Andrew Lloyd Webber, that’s who. In fact, Webber, who was known for the rock operas Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Evita took a massive chance in creating Cats. No one thought it could work, so Lloyd Webber put his time and his own money into the project. It turned out to be a smash, the longest-running first-run musical in London (21 years) and Broadway (18 years) at the time – the composer’s The Phantom of the Opera eventually eclipsed Cats’ run.

However, in the 37 years since it debuted on Broadway, Cats has had a bizarre double life – beloved theatrical institution which is also relentlessly mocked for being ham-handed and rather twee. At this point the musical is hate-watched as much as it is beloved, a vaguely corny holdover from the past in a snarky world that has spawned more recent Broadway smashes like The Book of Mormon.

I remember when I first saw it on the Broadway stage – years after its original successful run. I thought the sets were lovely, the music and dancing mostly very nice. I also had to admit that if someone put a gun to my head and asked me to explain the plot of what I had just seen, I would not be able to do so.

Because Cats only has the barest wisp of a plot – something about a newly stray kitten meeting a bunch of London street cats discussing their places in the world and competing for an additional life. There is an evil cat that seems to be making some of them disappear, and an old grande dame cat whose job is to decide who will fly off in a chandelier balloon and into a new life.

All of which makes you wonder, is there really an audience for a film version of Cats?

Well, the sets look spectacular, and it has some nice music, including a genuine classic showstopper with the song “Memory” – one of the few songs only tangentially based on an Eliot poem.

Okay, let’s talk about the cat-sized elephant in the room. Ever since the first trailer came out months ago, people have been abuzz about how creepy looking the CGI cat characters were – furry kitties with human faces; noses, mouths (and human teeth), eyes with round pupils, even human hands, breasts on the girl cats, and they mostly walk upright on two legs. Also, they seem to be on the scale of cats in some scenes, the size of humans in others.

Yes, they are freaky looking – which was a problem with the stage show, too, but at least those costumes were more organic-looking. That said, it seems that the makers of Cats were in sort of an impossible position. If they made the cats really look like cats they couldn’t sing and dance, could they? However, if they make them look like humanoid cats, won’t they sort of turn off a good portion of the audience – except maybe some people who are into furries?

Of course, this impossible situation could have brought into question whether the project was worth doing from the start. After all, there are reasons that it has taken Cats almost 40 years to make it to the big screen.

But now it’s here. So, will you like the film of Cats? If you loved the musical, probably. If you hated the musical, it has all the same problems, though most of them (as with most things in this film) are bigger and brighter. If you’re on the fence about the Broadway show, like me; it’s probably worth seeing once, but I doubt you’ll see it twice.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2019 All rights reserved. Posted: December 20, 2019.


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