“Cats” was the fourth-longest-running Broadway show (after “The Phantom of the Opera,”, the 1996 revival of “Chicago,” and “The Lion King”) and the sixth-longest-running West End show. It’s hard to argue with that kind of success that included seven Tony Awards (Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Original Score, Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical for Betty Buckley, Best Direction of a Musical for Trevor Nunn, Best Costume Design, Best Lighting Design and Best Cast Show Album) and Olivier Awards for Best New Musical and Outstanding Achievement in a Musical. “Cats” the movie doesn’t attempt to replicate the award-winning costumes and seriously tweaks the plot. While “Cats” the movie isn’t a total CATastrophy, it is not a good musical movie.
I must admit that I’m not a fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber and but I have some affection for this sung-through musical along with “Evita.” I was not a big fan of the movie “Evita,” because Madonna didn’t have the voice or the presence for the lead role. In “Cats,” while there are a few stars, both young (Jennifer Hudson and Taylor Swift) and old (Judi Dench and Ian McKellan), they are featured and film follows a cat named Victoria who is played by Francesca Hayward, principal dancer at the Royal Ballet at Covent Gardens.
The only human character in the movie is a woman in classy but sensible heels who gets out of a vintage car and walks into an alley of a commercial district with a printed pillowcase that has something wriggling inside. She tosses it casually away and then, without hesitation leaves. The alley cats are curious about the moving bundle and from it springs a wide-eyed “cat” named Victoria. Victoria is new to this place and not even sure how she got there, but the cats introduce themselves and reveal that she has come to their turf on a special night.
This is the night of the Jellicle Choice when Old Deuteronomy will choose one of their number to journey to Heaviside Layer and come back to a new and hopefully better life. Some of the cats are funny such as Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson), but that number emphasizes the weirdness of scale–the roaches and mice don’t seem to be on the same scale as the cats. Some cats lack confidence like Mr. Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson). Some of the cats are sad such as Bus the Theatre Cat (Ian McKellen) and, of course, Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson). Not all the cats are in the running and not all cats are honest. The dastardly Macavity (Idris Elba) wants to insure that he will be the choice. He kidnaps Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench).
Dench doesn’t sing. She falls back on rhythmic speak singing. I find her depiction as a ginger Persian quite lovely, but that kind of physical fit doesn’t carry over to every cat in this musical.
Under the direction of Tom Hooper, the musical movie lacks the exuberance of the stage musical–the elegant feline ferocity and catty campiness, and, fans, be forewarned there is no spaceship at the end. The means of making it to the other side is more in keeping with the nebulous time period and the ending is gentler than the musical. A lot of detail has gone into the creation of a commercial district with plenty of cat-related puns in the background. Those are delightful. With all the CGI involved with the tail, ear and whisker movements, I wondered who was in charge of that? The credited choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler? The director? The animation supervisor Ben Anderson?
If you liked the trailer, then this might work for you. The press screening was a lot of fun with cocktails, gold and black temporary tattoo sheets and colorful sequined cat ears! I left happy over the experience. Still, on reflection, Hooper seems more interested with the emotional content and while casting a real dancer is always a good choice for a musical, the choreography just doesn’t capture the excitement of people in lycra campily playing cats. This hovers between reality and a fantasy world. The vision is coherent, but far from purrr-fect.