As a general rule, this critic is hesitant to allege that there is any property that can’t be adapted, reimagined, or updated. In the pursuit of creative freedom, it should be encouraged that every great moment in culture be given an opportunity to be born into a new life much like the Jellicle Cat. That being said… the freedom to adapt something does not necessarily mean it has a chance in hell of translating. Much like the Glamour Cat, Grizabella, I too remember the time I knew what happiness was… a time before Cats could hiss in the face of nature, decency, and taste.
Based on the famous Andrew Lloyd Webber musical (which is based on the 1939 poetry collection by T.S. Eliot), Cats tells the story of the Jellicles, a tribe of cats, on the eve of a momentous occasion. Once a year, a Jellicle cat is selected to ascend to the Heaviside Layer and be reborn to a new life. Victoria, a naïve white kitten and new member of the Jellicles, takes us along for her introduction to this world as we meet the cats of the Jellicle tribe.
If you’re still unsure of what is going on, don’t worry. You are now part of a proud tradition of no one really knowing what exactly Cats is about, stretching all the way back to the musical’s West end premiere in 1981.
Tom Hooper is back in the saddle as director, following 2012’s adaptation of Les Misérables. The film stars newcomer Francesca Hayward as Victoria, Idris Elba as the villainous Macavity, Dame Judi Dench as Old Deuteronomy, Taylor Swift as Bombalurina, and huge names like Ian McKellen, Rebel Wilson, James Corden, and Jason Derulo playing quirky cats with names like Rum Tum Tugger, Jennyanydots, and Bustopher Jones. Finally, Jennifer Hudson sparkles as the downtrodden Grizabella. Remember that name, we’ll get to it later.
For the uninitiated, Cats the musical is a cornerstone piece of theatre and absolutely a cultural staple. Since its West End debut in 1981, the show has enjoyed multiple revivals, awards accolade, an ongoing run in a purpose-built theatre in Japan, and over 32,000 professional performances worldwide. Cats is often credited as the inventor of the musical phenomenon and lifted Broadway from a local and elite pleasure to the tourist attraction and global industry that it is today. This Cat has some serious pedigree and that storied history is a huge part of the film.
The problem with Cats, the film, can be traced back to the trailer. From that first look there was something so unsettling, ridiculous, and just plain weird that casual fans and industry professionals alike were turned off. The Uncanny Valley is a real thing and it doesn’t get better when you slap some super realistic fur and cat ears on it.
Coming into the film already very familiar with the stage production, I already had an expectation of what kind of weird I was in for. Among one of the first things I noticed was that the film very much stuck to the aesthetic and spirit of the show including very humanoid people adopting a very catlike physicality. Yeah… that’s just unnatural. Watching people physically mimic cats is bizarre enough without having the freakish visual effects stacked on top of it. Try looking at Idris Elba as the Sexiest Man Alive after seeing him meow and hiss (and doing so in complete total seriousness), yeah, it’s difficult.
Truthfully, the issue of Cats is that it’s all so unappealingly artificial. When reflecting on the live production what distinguishes that bizarre story from this one and catapults the musical to the level of actual entertainment is the physical elements. People are transformed into cats through innovative costuming and makeup. Large musical numbers, while grand, are limited to the elements of stage space and set pieces. A professional theatre production is an exercise in creativity and that’s what the film adaptation is missing.
Cats is one big green screen. The cats look especially off-putting because they’re almost too smooth, too well rendered, and too artificial. It has no grit and therefore it has no soul. These CGI nightmares play on a massive, digitally rendered stage. Everything about the environment is too big and dripping with loud colors and light. Cats, as a film, is an overwhelming assault on the senses with none of the balance or charm that comes from seeing a similar production live.
It’s perhaps unfair to review the film by constantly comparing it to the source material, but it’s such a faithful adaptation that one can’t simply view the film in a vacuum and still do it fair service. The storytelling of Cats is just as incoherent and overwrought as the play, so I would not hold that against it but for the moments the film did have control over.
This critic is sensitive to the challenge that faces filmmakers trying to bring a cult classic of a different medium to film. There’s a reasonable expectation that within an adaptation would be attempts to make Cats more accessible and palatable to the average movie-goer. However, that accessibility came in the form of Rebel Wilson and James Corden kitten caricatures and eye-roll inducing contemporary humor. Cheap laughs aside, the humor felt out of place within the rest of the film making every bad joke stand out even more.
In all other respects, Cats did exactly what it set out to do: bring the musical to the big screen. As I’ve said at several points, in this review, Cats is a true blue adaptation of the musical for better or for worse depending on the viewer. The film is brimming with rich theatrical elements. The musical numbers are bombastic and the very greatest precision of voice and dance is on display. In many ways, Cats is a triumph because it brings the Broadway experience to the movie-going public more effectively than any film that has come before.
That being said, with the sweet also comes the sour. Cats, like a playful kitten, is sometimes so distracted by its own twirling that it cannot rein the material in. As with the theatre, scenes drag on and sometimes ramble off into nowhere. An awkward epilogue, in which a feline Judi Dench breaks the fourth wall, reveals the truth: Cats should never have left the stage.
Reading this review, one may get the impression that Cats is destined to flop but that is not what I believe. Let’s circle back to Grizabella. In years of Cats performances and the fame of the musical, I couldn’t list another title or hum another tune that isn’t “Memory.” Andrew Lloyd Webber broke the mold with this heartbreaking ballad and “Memory” is such a damn good piece of music that it transcends its bizarre origins and is a treasured entry in any self-respecting songbook.
Jennifer Hudson breathes life into the famous Grizabella in a performance that is remarkably subdued and sincere amongst all the “flash and trash” of the film. Her rendition of “Memory” is so powerful that it silenced the snickers of my viewing audience and even brought a few audience members to quiet applause. There are moments of this film that will grab filmgoers, just as they have grabbed audiences all over the world.
To render a verdict on Cats is complicated. It’s a bizarre film and it does a lot of things wrong. I would not relish the opportunity to see it again and will happily forget it, as soon as possible. But that is how I’ve felt about the entire musical, since I first became aware of it. The film will be just as polarizing as the production. Lovers of the musical or Cats fans that only need an introduction to become devoted will get exactly what they hoped for.
As far as recommendations, I urge viewers to go in with an open mind. Be open to the fact that you may hate. Be open to the fact that you may love it. You’d be perfectly within your right, either way.
Caitlin is a sweater enthusiast, film critic, and lean, mean writing machine based in Austin, TX. Her love of film began with being shown Rosemary’s Baby at a particularly impressionable age and she’s been hooked ever since. She loves a good bourbon and hates people who talk in movies. Caitlin has been writing since 2014 and you can find her work on Film Inquiry, The Financial Diet, Nightmarish Conjurings, and many others.