FILM REVIEW – CATS. With Francesca Hayward, Taylor Swift, Idris Elba, Judi Dench, Robbie Fairchild. Written by Lee Hall, Tom Hooper. Directed by Tom Hooper. Rated PG for some rude and suggestive humor. 110 minutes.
If you turned off the soundtrack and only had to watch for a few minutes, then CATS might be hailed as a surreal, visually stunning movie. However, that’s not how things work. Based on the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical (itself based on a series of poems by T. S. Eliot), “Cats” is a film that frequently makes you wonder “How did they do that?” – especially when you see the long list of special effects people credited at the end – and yet will only work for those willing to buy in to its rather odd premise.
The story, if it can be called that, involves Victoria (Francesca Hayward) – a cat abandoned by a seemingly cruel human – finding herself among a group of strays who call themselves the Jellicle cats. She meets a number of the other felines, including Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson), Mr. Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson), and Munkustrap (Robbie Fairchild). She learns that Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) is to make the annual pick of who will ascend to the Heaviside Layer and be reborn. The evil and magical Macavity (Idris Elba) wants it to be him and does what he can to take out the opposition.
While the makeup, costuming, sets, and special effects are quite imaginative, the “cats” are a peculiar mix of human and effects, with fur, and feline ears and tails, and yet human faces and hands. This leads to moments where you either suspend your disbelief or you laugh at the absurdity of the proceedings. When Ian McKellan shows up as Gus “the theater cat,” one is left wondering why the actor was convinced this was a role he wanted to tackle.
The casting is ambitious and impressive. Among those already mentioned, James Corden pops up as a fat cat named Bustopher Jones, providing an amusing vignette, while Jennifer Hudson – as a bedraggled alley cat named Grizabella – offers a heartfelt rendition of the show’s one notable song, “Memory,” while forced to play it with a runny nose. For Taylor Swift fans, there’s also her appearance as Bombalurina, which includes her singing a song written for the movie (“Beautiful Ghosts”) by her and Webber.
Director Tom Hooper has some interesting films in his credits, including “The King’s Speech,” but he is also responsible for one of the worst movie musical adaptations of recent years, 2012’s “Les Misérables.” It’s hard to say if the blame for this movie falls on him or on the stage musical, which ran for 18 years on Broadway. Fans of the show may well be willing to embrace this cinematic expansion. However, it’s unlikely to expand the potential audience for it, and this critic is both a lover of musicals and our feline friends.
“Cats” may not be the worst film of 2019, but it’s going to earn a spot on many 10 worst lists, and deservedly so.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.