[Review] ‘CATS’ is purrfectly wild and wacky


Courtney Howard // Film Critic


Rated PG, 110 minutes

Directed by: Tom Hooper

Starring: Francesca Hayward, Idris Elba, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Laurie Davidson, Rebel Wilson, James Corden, Jennifer Hudson, Jason Derulo, Taylor Swift, Ray Winstone, Danny Collins

The question asked of director Tom Hooper’s visual effects-driven musical based on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s long-running, equally revered and reviled Broadway show CATS shouldn’t be “What was that?” but rather “How does that even exist?” After all, this is material featuring human-feline hybrid designs, a goofy plot about reincarnation, and cockroaches (with faces!) engaged in a Busby Berkeley dance number (more like “Bugsby Berkeley,” amirite?!). That slight pivot in perspective takes a Herculean effort on the audience’s part to wake themselves out of a catatonic state as the credits roll. Though the narrative is fairly understandable and, with the exception of one powerhouse ballad often sung at children’s talent shows, it doesn’t carry much heavy emotional weight. Yet its wild, wacky spirit and crazy creative choices make it an equal parts awful and audacious spectacle to behold.

Our tale (tail?) begins as naive kitty Victoria (Francesca Hayward) is abandoned in a back alley under the cover of night. She quickly learns from the other curious cats on the London street scene that this night is a special night where one exemplary “jellicle cat” (their speak for “angelic”) will be chosen to ascend to the “heaviside layer” (their interpretation of heaven) as selected by Old Deuteronomy (Dame Judi Dench). Each of the potential contestants welcomes her into their underground world with songs alluding to their backstories. Victoria, on a search for her own identity, spends the evening listening, singing and dancing along to songs about her new furry fwends, who enjoy a life of leisure, chaos and gluttony – and those who don’t.

However, there’s one cat who’s a threat to all the others, making his intimidating presence known. Shifty, green-eyed Macavity (Idris Elba) uses magic to make his competition disappear so that he can become the chosen one. As he jockeys for the lead position, the remaining stray cats strut in their annual showcase on the stage of the once grand, now degrading Egyptian theater.

Francesca Hayward in CATS. Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

While it’s slightly bizarre that each character has an introductory musical number deep into act three, the allegorical context denotes the cat caste-system is structured as dynamically as human society. Class structure and the struggles of the marginalized and disenfranchised are thematic content. This is tackled in not just the opening act’s cat chorus, but also the individual ostentatious set pieces centering around the haves, like lazy housecat Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson) and gluttonous cat Bustopher Jones (James Corden), and the havenots, like Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson) being the lonely outcast after she lost her beauty, youth and wealth. Even those okay with the status quo are represented, like Positively (pawsitively?) optimistic Mr. Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson), suave Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo), and mayhem twins Rumpleteazer (Naoimh Morgan) and Mungojerrie (Danny Collins). Taylor Swift’s new song collaboration slips in smoothly, perfectly (purrfectly?) complementing the narrative drive.

Despite making its points heard, the sentiments aren’t impactful. It’s incredibly antiquated that all the comedic gags involving food and pratfalls are exclusively done by the ensemble’s heavy-set actors Wilson and Corden. Hooper and co-screenwriter Lee Hall should’ve left those bits back in the early 80’s from whence it originated. The visual effects occasionally fail. The cats proportions vary from number to number. They look okay during Rum Tum Tugger’s Milk Bar dance sequence, yet mouse-sized in
Skimbleshanks’ (Steven McRae) line tap dance across railway tracks. For what should be a celebration of dance, with its eclectic and diverse styles, the animation takes away from the performers’ movements, making it look unnatural. The motion capture on the faces of actors like Dench, Hayward, Elba and Ian McKellen, who plays an elderly thespian cat, are well-executed. Others like Hudson, who’s tasked to sell the palpable poignancy of the show-stopping ballad “Memory,” appear artificial and off-putting.

Far from being CLIMAX with cats, but wondering the exact same amount of times when the orgy begins, Hooper’s cinematic iteration of the interactive stage show is probably the best way one can expect to experience the insanity extravaganza. That said, to really replicate that magic, immersive 3-D should be a mandatory requirement. It sprays its unique odor like a cat in heat.

CATS opens on December 20.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.