Ever since the trailer appeared last summer, the release of “Cats” has been anticipated the way one anticipates the opening of a can of Fancy Feast Classic Paté: Could the film really be quite so, well, aromatic? It takes some time for a solid payoff, but finally Jennifer Hudson’s tragic Grizabella launches into her reprise of “Memory,” with all the agonized, heroic, even operatic ornamentation the song has never warranted. And if you manage not to laugh at that point, give yourself a belly rub.
Mostly, “Cats” is a confusing litter box of intentions, from its crushed-velour aesthetic to its strip-bar sensuality to its musical cluelessness. Its inevitability, of course, is something else entirely: The Andrew Lloyd Webber creation, inspired by T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” debuted in 1981 in London (where the movie takes place) and ran for 21 years; the original Broadway production, mounted a year later, ran for 18 years. Its influence doesn’t seem to have been musical or theatrical as much as commercial: It helped turn Broadway’s focus toward the mega-hit and a theme-park sensibility. Fiscally speaking, one can’t really argue with the results.
Artistically, it’s a hairball. There’s no story to speak of, Mr. Webber’s music is immediately forgettable—except perhaps for “Memory,” which rips off Puccini—and, like a cat standing at an open door, it takes forever to get where it’s going. The show’s been around so long that “Cats” the movie can be diagnosed as a reinfection. It’s hard to imagine anyone involved getting away uncontaminated.
Dame Judi Dench resembles no one so much as Bert Lahr in her warbling, gender-bending turn as Old Deuteronomy, the cat who will make the movie’s big decision: Which member of the swarm will be the “Jellicle choice” and win a new life? The show’s endless cataloging, so to speak, introduces us to the contenders: Grizabella, of course, and Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson), Gus the Theatre Cat ( Ian McKellen ), Bustopher Jones ( James Corden ) and Mr. Mistoffelees ( Laurie Davidson ). Taylor Swift, as Bomalurina, escapes relatively unscathed, since her number is a stand-alone, her appearance almost a cameo. The malevolent Macavity is portrayed by Idris Elba, whom I used to think would make a great James Bond, but now I’m not sure given the indignities of his hairy chocolate leotard.
The innocent/slinky Victoria—whose perpetually arched eyebrows, ever-parted lips and “tail perpendicular” (to quote Eliot) suggest that a litter might be arriving in about two months’ time—is played by the lovely but voiceless Francesca Hayward, a principal at London’s Royal Ballet. From what we can see, her dancing is quite fine, though the editing of the musical numbers is so heavy-handed it doesn’t do her justice.
Visually, “Cats” never quite escapes the stage, but given the pedigree of the show who would want it to? CGI does provide director Tom Hooper with options Trevor Nunn never had when he directed the original productions, notably the transformation of a human cast into cat-sized creatures, gamboling about the London theater district or ripping up bedrooms or scurrying across rooftops. The thing is, they don’t so much resemble cats as they do furry Lilliputians whose size, relative to the “real” world, seems to ebb and flow, the scale ever fluid. This contributes to the sense of creepiness that was commented upon when the trailer first arrived, and it prompts a question about marketing: Was the idea behind “Cats” to generate morbid curiosity and a kind of so-bad-it’s-good mystique, a la “Showgirls”/”Glitter”/”Troll 2”? It’s certainly a strategy. But during a press screening of the film this week, a critic who used his cellphone (probably to check the time) was immediately pounced on by security, and wound up leaving the screening. What he left in his wake was a hot trail of envy.
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