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“Cats” Review: A fascinating nightmare

"Cats" Review: A fascinating nightmare
"Cats" Review: A fascinating nightmare
Release Date
January 3, 2020
United States
Comedy, Fantasy, Musical
Tom Hooper
Our Score

Each cat has three names: one common, one fancy, and one only the cat knows. So goes a line from The Naming of the Cats, one of the poems in T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. He could not have had predicted his collected cat poems written for his godchildren will inspire one of the most successful musicals in history. Cats premiered in London in 1981 and ushered in the phenomenon of the mega-musicals. (There must be something about actors in unitards with cat hair and make-up that attracts millions of theatergoers.) Cats is about a group of special cats called Jellicles as they gather for the annual Jellicle Ball and decide which fortunate feline ascends to the Heaviside Layer. Each person has three reactions to Cats: one is confusion, one is resignation, and one only the person knows. 

I have three reactions on the screen adaptation of Cats: why, why, and why.

There is no reason to film Cats other than to demonstrate a cautionary tale on modern filmmaking. Director Tom Hooper assembled a star-studded cast, shot them in motion capture, and here conjures one of the most fascinating nightmares I ever had. No other sequence can quite capture the intensely horrific experience than the “Jennyanydots: The Old Gumbie Cat” production. Jennyanydots, played by Rebel Wilson, helps mice and cockroaches become more productive come nighttime. For some inexplicable reason, the mice and the cockroaches have human faces. As her number reaches the end, Jennyanydots grabs one of the roaches and eat the hapless musical cretin. 

Yet, watching it I ached for even more bizarre production numbers to elevate the film from terrible to once-in-a-lifetime terrible. Despite their Jellicle efforts, Rum Tum Tugger, Bustopher Jones, Munkustrap, Skimbleshanks, and Mr. Mistoffelees can’t quite cut it for me. Perhaps the biggest disappointment is Jennifer Hudson as Grizabella the Glamour Cat. She looked uncomfortable singing “Memory.” The final headscratcher comes as her performance abruptly ends so that another cat could belt out “Beautiful Ghosts”, the single from Taylor Swift. Splitting the one good song in Cats to ensure a best original song nomination for a forgettable pop ditty is not a good idea.

"Cats" Review: A fascinating nightmare
"Cats" Review: A fascinating nightmare

The biggest failure of Cats is character design. Each actor is shot in motion capture and enhanced with digital fur. They all have human faces and nonexistent genitals. (But the female felines at least possess nipple-less bosoms.) The Jellicle cats look like rejects from the island of a certain mad doctor. These human-cat hybrids still kept the film from drowning under a sea of a bland quagmire. Entertainment is scarce as cat puns could simply not sustain an entire 110-minute run time. Our refuge is unintentional humor, such as Idris Elba essentially forfeiting his sexiest man title playing Macavity the Mystery Cat or finding out Jason Derulo and Judi Dench are co-stars. By the time you realize some cats have cat fur coats, you are stuck with the alarming but hilarious possibility that they are murderers. 

For a fleeting moment, Ian McKellen as Gus the Theatre Cat takes us out of our miseries. He seems to have ambled from a different Cats production and is genuinely having a good time. I wish the rest of the cast had a good time. I wish Francesca Hayward, a splendid ballet dancer playing the lead character Victoria, did more than look surprise the entire time. I wish reasonable people prevailed and decided not to make the film. Cats is a confusing, poorly designed, shoddily edited film adaptation. Tom Hooper previously directed Les Miserables and just needs to make The Phantom of the Opera to complete the mega-musical trifecta. I am not a fan of Mr. Hooper but hopes he bounces back in his future. But if he opts to dip his toes in the outlandish musical adaptation pool once more, I suggest he rides the Starlight Express.

"Cats" Review: A fascinating nightmare
Cats (2019)
I have three reactions on Tom Hooper's screen adaptation of "Cats": why, why, and why.
In Hindsight
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