‘I’ ON CULTURE
I expected a disaster when I went to see Cats, based on the absolutely awful reviews it has gotten from others. I was pleasantly surprised. Yes, it is a mess, but in its own way, it is a sort of glorious mess. It makes no real sense, but then the Broadway musical that ran for decades never made sense either. It is uneven, and more than a bit strange. But there are some pleasant surprises. For those who never heard of the show, it is sort of an American Idol for cats, with the grand prize of being sent to the “Heaviside Layer,” meaning a rebirth. Hey, if that existed for people, imagine how many stars would be going for that? But the film makes some changes.
A sack is dropped off in a London gutter and young cat Victoria (Francesca Hayward) emerges, having been thrown away by her family. She is greeted by a group of Jellicle cats. That term, if you are interested, comes from a T.S. Eliot poem and means “dear little cats.” And, yes, this is all based on the work of a poet whose gloomy writings we suffered through in high school.
At any rate, Victoria is told by Munkustrap (Robert Fairchild) that it is the night of the Jellicle Ball and that Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) will choose the winner and send them on. What follows is mostly a group of “star turns” as well-known people perform, all wearing cat suits. We have Bustapher Jones (James Corden), the fat cat; Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson), another fat cat who has trained mice and cockroaches to perform for her; Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo), the rock ’n’ roll cat; Gus the Theater Cat (Ian McKellen); and Bombalurina (Taylor Swift), who sings in praise of villain Macavity (Idris Elba). All the while, watching from outside, is Grizabella, the glamour cat (Jennifer Hudson). There’s a complicated sub-plot regarding Macavity and Mister Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson), the magic cat, but it merely confuses the whole thing.
The cast is good. I wish Wilson had not spent quite as much time scratching her groin, but that is a minor quibble. For Swift fans, she was fine in her number, as were Corden and Derulo. McKellen was a standout, however. His song, which was a pleasant throwaway in the musical, becomes a superb lesson in how to act out a song. Unlike the others, his was done in close-up, and his feelings and aspirations were all shown as he performed brilliantly. He proves the old line that there is no such thing as small parts, only small actors. He was on screen for only a short time and was superb.
Fairchild, the non-star, was exceptional as both singer and dancer. Dench does her usual good job. Hudson, singing the major song from the show, Memory, sang it wonderfully well, although she did overplay the acting a bit. Of course, since the song itself is fantastic while not making all that much real sense — it is the only song from the original play that did not come from Eliot’s book Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats — but it comes across so well, who cares? Hayward was the real standout. Although essentially a chorus cat in the play, she is central to the movie. She provides a way to have other cats explain what is going on. Also, she is a superb dancer, a reasonably good singer and cute as a kitten.
Why does the film fail? Look to director Tom Hooper. He is a “smoother,” a director who likes to get rid of rough edges. That helped ruin his Les Miserables. Although uneven on stage, its high points overcame any defects. In the movie, there were few lower points, but the high points essentially just blended into a fairly mediocre thing. Here, there were far too few really high points: McKellen’s performance, some incredible dancing, even Swift’s production number. And they were brief. And then there was the reality that Macavity brought.
As I wrote at the top, it is a mess. But if you loved the musical Cats, you probably will love the movie. And if you like cats, you might like it. If not, wait until you can see it free on television.