When the Cats trailer was released in 2019, it instantly went viral for all the wrong reasons. The movie fully lives down to expectations. It is mind-blowingly awful, disturbing, train-wreck territory, but it still manages to be boring.
Director Tom Hooper has taken on a big Broadway musical before, in 2012’s maudlin but award-winning Les Miserables. That film was notable for its extensive use of extreme close-ups; Hooper repeats this technique in Cats, but with added whiskers and pointy ears. Add a star-cluttered cast, massive budget, and overweening sense of self-importance, and the result does nothing to justify the time and effort that apparently went into producing this film.
The cats feature a disturbing and inconsistent blend of human and feline anatomy. Several of the female cats have well defined bosoms and Idris Elba boasts a six-pack beneath his fur. Their tails twitch constantly. Most of them go naked, but a few are fully or partially clothed in elaborate steampunk styles. Judi Dench wears a floor-length fur coat that might have been made from her own pelt. Worst of all are the long, human fingers emerging from the ends of furry paws.
The whole thing takes place in a sterile, empty version of London in which Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square are literally transposed on top of each other. Worse still, there are cat puns on all of the advertising hoardings. The sense of scale is baffling: one moment, the cats are the size of garbage bins, the next moment they are dwarfed by a loaf of bread.
Innovative, high-energy choreography may have been the redeeming feature of the stage musical cats. In the film, the dances are by the accomplished Broadway choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, but the result is lackluster, and much of the movement is so heavily CGI-manipulated that one wonders why they bothered hiring live actors at all. Undoubtedly there are talented dancers, but they are given no room to shine. Royal Ballet principal Francesca Hayward is graceful and fleet of foot, on the too-rare occasions she is allowed to dance rather than hang around looking ripe for seduction. Her colleague Steven McRae, wearing bizarre red dungarees and cap, gets to briefly show off his chops in a nimble tap solo, before leading a procession of cats across London Bridge.
The cast attack their task with great earnestness, and for this I give them credit, but it might have been better if they had embraced the sheer ridiculousness of it all. Sarah Dowley is listed in the credits as “Cat Movement Specialist”; presumably she was to blame for all the suggestive headbutting and hooked hands clawing the air.
Abandoned kitty Victoria (Hayward) is taken up by the Jellicle Cats on the very night that they are preparing to hold their annual Jellicle Ball. (While the term “jellicle” is never explained, it refers to some sort of secret society or fraternal order. This is decidedly not an impression that came across in TS Eliot’s source material.)
The point of Hayward’s character is unclear but Hooper gives her a lot of lingering close-ups, which she spends staring at the other felines in wide-eyed wonder as if she’s never seen a terrifying CGI mutant cat before.A few lines of dialogue are inserted in an attempt to create some sort of flimsy narrative framework, and so we learn that on this night, a bunch of old down-on-their-luck cats will compete for the opportunity to ascend to the heavens and be reborn into the next of their nine lives. Each of the candidates will sing a song about themselves, and the lucky winner will be chosen by the Jellicles’ leader, Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench).
The genre of song in which protagonists introduces themselves to the audience is a well-worn chestnut, familiar to any viewer of Hindi films. In Cats, we get 10 of these songs in a row, but there is never any reason to take further interest in this roll call of characters. The musical score trundles on, attempting to create a sense of urgency, and the result is a series of charmless vignettes.
Rebel Wilson whips off her fursuit to reveal fuchsia disco hot pants, under which another, identical fursuit. James Corden does fat jokes. Only Ian McKellen emerges with his dignity intact. He manages to win some genuine sympathy as the thespian cat Gus, peering bashfully from lowered eyelids and crooning “meow meow meow meow”.
The villain of the piece is Macavity (Idris Elba), a demonic cat with supernatural powers whose motives remain unclear. He attempts to win the competition by kidnapping all of the other contestants and imprisoning them on a barge in the middle of the Thames. “Never! Never! Never!” declares Judi Dench, which leads to a muddled fight scene.
The prize goes to former glamourpuss Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson), a fallen woman whom the other cats treat as a terrible warning. She sputters off-key through what should have been a show-stopping number, the musical’s most famous song Memory, then slumps to the ground before climbing into a chandelier attached to a hot air balloon and sailing off into the sunrise.