Opening in London’s West End in 1981, it ran for 21 years and 8,949 performances, while the Broadway production ran for 18 years and 7,485 performances. It has played in over 30 countries in 15 languages and has been seen by more than 73 million people worldwide. The showstopping hit song “Memory” has been recorded by everyone from Liberace to Barbra Streisand. It is truly a show that always lands on its feet.
Oscar-winner director Tom Hooper puts out the litter box one more time in an all-star film that tells the tale of a tribe of cats called the Jellicles. The all-star cast, including James Corden, Judi Dench, Idris Elba, Jennifer Hudson, Ian McKellen, Taylor Swift and Rebel Wilson, hidden under layers of CGI fur and whiskers, spend one-night singing and dancing as Old Deuteronomy (Dench) makes the Jellicle Choice to decide which cat will be sent to the Heaviside and reborn into a new life. The film version, with dialogue that links many of the tunes, does a better job of expressing the story but perhaps it’s best to remember that Lloyd Webber said to Hal Prince when he asked the composer if “Cats” was a political metaphor. “Are those cats Queen Victoria, Gladstone and Disraeli?’ the Broadway legend wondered. “Hal,” the composer replied, “this is just about cats.”
Let’s not pussyfoot around. “Cats” will go down in history as the weirdest studio movie of 2019. With actors who appear to have been put through the full-body Snapchat cat filter, a Ziegfeld Follies style chorus line of dancing cockroaches and felines with human hands and feet like rejects from “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” you’ll wonder if the theatre popcorn is laced with cat nip.
It’s an example of spectacle over substance. The songs are catchy, the cats swing and sway in a manner that would make Cirque du Soleil envious, but the story, such that it is, is still simply a collection of show tunes bound by theme but unconcerned with the niceties of plotting. In other words, instead of a story “Cats” is essentially a cluster of songs of introduction based on a weird, plotless collection of Eliot’s poems.
Where director Tom Hooper’s “Les Misérables” worked to downplay the musical’s theatricality, “Cats” embraces it, allowing the felines to slink about the set, part ballet, part pantomime, part cat in heart. It’s big and silly, but unfortunately the high-tech veneer of the CGI costumes and sets erases much of the charm present in the more modest stage versions. One of the movie’s highlights is one stripped of (almost) all artifice. Dame Judy stares down the camera to deliver a playful “The Ad-dressing of Cats,” which has the kind of simple, absurd fun the rest of the film lacks.
There are other not-so-bad moments. Laurie Davidson’s “The Magical Mr. Mistoffelees” has a touch of, well, magic and Taylor Swift sashays convincingly through Bombalurina’s number but while the cast works hard to sell the material but the film is so unrestrained, so in search of meaning in a story that offers up religious resurrection metaphors but not much else, that I suspect audiences will make the Jellicle Choice and go see “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” instead.