The fact that I’ve never seen a single production of Cats has always been a point of personal pride. I’ve always known, in an intuitive sort of way, that the musical just wasn’t for me: I’m not a fan of the over-wrought, pseudo-rock bombast of Andrew Lloyd Webber, I neither know nor have any interest in finding out what a Jellicle Cat is, and, most importantly, I’m firmly Team Dog. (I have been known to love individual cats, but I am hardly what one would call a cat person.)
Still, I am nothing if not professional and once I heard that Tom Hooper had directed a film version of the musical, I knew I was going to have to suck it up and see the damn thing.
And let me say this: I can’t say for sure that all productions of Cats are bad (although I have a hunch) but I can certainly say that this one is.
How. . .did this happen? How did they decide that the best course of action was to take some combination of actual make-up and CGI and create these sort of horrifying cat-human hybrids, with what looks like real fur and whiskers growing off of their human-shaped bodies? And why, oh why, do the female cats have breasts? Why are their hands and feet human? Why on earth is Jennifer Hudson’s Grizabella wearing nail polish?? Why does one cat appear to have a handlebar mustache? Am I on catnip?
What’s more: Once they’d made these choices (for choices, I suppose, had to be made) how did they then look at the finished product and say, ta da! Yes, this is complete and this will be our Christmas release, a film we fully hope and expect will garner Oscar nominations and glory for all those involved and that definitely won’t give nightmares to small, impressionable children.
If you ask me, this thing was doomed from the start. Maybe you can get away with humans dressed as cats on stage, where there is a comfortable distance between audience and actor, where we are more inclined to suspend our disbelief and give into the artifice of a thing. But in film, an inherently intimate genre, this was never going to work. The humanoid cats, rather than being inspiring or adorable or magical, are just kind of disturbing.
And it’s not just the costumes. I find the whole endeavor bizarre. I realize it’s all loosely based off T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, Illustrated—highbrow!—but maybe that’s where it should’ve stayed? I still can’t believe that a musical featuring songs called “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats,” “The Rum Tum Tugger,” “Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer,” and “Skimbelshanks, the Railway Cat” went on to become one of the longest running Broadway productions of all time. (I also love that in the midst of all this fantastical wordplay is a song called “Memory.” So basic.)
Lord knows the actors here aren’t to blame. There are lots of talented people up on that screen, chief among them Dame Judi Dench as the all-seeing cat matriarch, Old Deuteronomy; Ian McKellen as Gus the Theatre Cat, who is given one last triumphant hurrah at the Jellicle Ball; and Idris Elba as our villainous Macavity (for whatever reason, Elba is the least CGI’d of them all; had I seen him on the street I would not think, “ooh, a cat!” but might’ve assumed the poor fellow had just had a rough night). Others, including James Corden, (who gave me my only genuine laugh of the proceedings in a bit involving a failed catapult) and a curiously sexy (albeit now famously denuded) Jason Derulo as the aforementioned Rum Tum Tigger, give it their all. Honestly, they all give it their all, including wide-eyed newcomers Francesca Hayward (of the Royal Ballet Company) and Laurie Davidson, playing what passes for the romantic leads of this endeavor (they nuzzle a lot).
There are other big names: Taylor Swift, getting a featured number as a vampish sex kitten who swoops into the ball on a crescent moon, is just fine. (But a star isn’t born.) And, more significantly, there’s Jennifer Hudson, as Grizabella, who sings the show’s featured hit, “Memory.”
Readers, it gives me no pleasure to report that Jennifer Hudson is . . . not great in this role. She is, objectively, a brilliant singer and she could’ve crushed the song. But she chose, instead, to emote a lot during the singing—crying, gulping, quavering—in such a way that the song loses its sonic purity. She’s clearly gunning for that Oscar here and someone—specifically Tom Hooper—should’ve held her back. Also—and this is not an exaggeration—her character, a formerly fancy uptown cat kicked to the streets, spends roughly 90 percent of the film with a snot bubble coming out of her nose. This obviously wasn’t a detail from the play—you can’t see snot bubbles from a live theater audience. So this was a specific and deliberate choice made by the producers. Justice for J-Hud.
As for the dancing: Apparently the entire cast went to something called Cat School to learn how to move and pounce and climb like a cat. Maybe they should’ve stayed longer? Only a few times in the film did I feel that the movement approximated actual cats. Cats are remarkably nimble and slinky creatures—they do things like arch their backs when they get scared and lick themselves to groom. They have uncanny balance and climbing ability and curl into tight balls when they sleep. But you see very little of that in the film. Mostly, these people just look like exceptionally good human dancers in creepy cat costumes.
What can I say? I knew I wasn’t going to like Cats and I didn’t. It’s possible, I suppose, that if you are predisposed to liking Cats you will like this movie. But I doubt it. Some things are best left on stage. As for me, I wish I could go back to a time before I’d seen Cats. To quote the famous song: “I remember the time I knew what happiness was. Let the memory live again.”