Cats (United Kingdom/United States, 2019)

December 19, 2019
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Cats Poster

For 2019’s Big Holiday Musical Extravaganza, Hollywood has gone all the way back to 1981 to choose the source material. The concept of making a motion picture version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s immensely successful stage play, Cats, has both enticed and bedeviled filmmakers over the years. At one point, Steven Spielberg attempted to mount an animated version (which, at least insofar as creature design is concerned, would have solved one of the biggest problems) but that fell by the wayside (Spielberg is credited as an Executive Producer on this production). The final version, shepherded to the screen by Tom Hooper (who won an Oscar for The King’s Speech and has had previous Big Holiday Musical Extravaganza experience with Les Miserables) condenses the text of Lloyd Webber’s stage show while retaining most of the musical numbers and focusing on dance choreography. The result (at least for those who aren’t creeped out by the look of the anthropomorphic cats) should appeal to those with a love of musical theater (and Lloyd Webber in particular) but will hold little interest for others. This doesn’t offer the kind of family-friendly experience that many musicals provide.

In terms of plot, there isn’t one – or at least not one that matters. The entire movie focuses on the “Jellicle Ball,” in which members of a tribe of cats vie with each other to see who can ascend to the Heaviside Layer (via what appears to be ritual sacrifice). The final decision of who gets to go is made by the leader of the Jellicles, Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench). The “contestants” include Gus the Theater Cat (Ian McKellan), Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson), Bustopher Jones (James Corden), Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson), and Mr. Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson), among others. The malicious Macavity (Idris Elba) is set on disrupting the process to gain the spot for himself and his scheme involves kidnapping his rivals. All of this is seen through the eyes of Victoria (Francesca Hayward), a newcomer to the Ball who is attempting to join the Jellicles.

The movie is comprised primarily of singing – spoken lines are few and far between. There’s also a lot of dancing, so it makes sense that many of the secondary performers have strong ballet backgrounds. The movie is stagebound and there are times when the camera seems at a loss as to whether it’s better to show a wide shot of the entire entourage or close-ups of the singer(s). Hooper never successful solves this problem and there are times when his shot selection is frustrating. For those unfamiliar with the musical “Cats,” many of the songs have a “generic Andrew Lloyd Webber” sound. The standout is “Memory” and, as belted out by Jennifer Hudson, it delivers the expected goosebumps. The same can’t be said of any of the other songs, including a new one co-written by Taylor Swift and Andrew Lloyd-Webber (sung by Francesca Hayward).

Any review of Cats would be incomplete without discussing the creature design. In order to transform the actors into human/feline hybrids, cat suits were combined with CGI technology. The result isn’t entirely successful – there are times when the creatures look like a gang of Jim Carreys from the live-action The Grinch. There’s something off-putting about seeing the familiar human features of an actor manipulated in this fashion. Nothing about the way these cats move is natural, even if there is something weirdly sexual about the way they undulate during their dance routines.

There isn’t much more to Cats than the experience of sitting back and watching weird-looking performers pretending to be cats while gyrating to Andrew Lloyd Webber songs. Yes, there are some great actors on screen – Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, and Idris Elba fall into that category – but their thespian skills are either wasted and/or unnecessary. Newcomer Francesca Hayward is flexible both in terms of her form and her facial expression (the camera loves her in close-up, even with the whiskers) but it’s impossible to tell whether she can act. Taylor Swift fans will get an opportunity to see their favorite pop star on-screen, although her role is relatively minor and she’s only given one opportunity to sing. An individual’s appreciation of Cats may rest on a previous love of the stage play; others are more likely to throw up a hairball than purr in contentment.

Cats (United Kingdom/United States, 2019)

Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Release Date: 2019-12-20
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Genre: Musical
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1