Musicals are a bit of an odd cat. Initially perceived on a stage, perspective is the inherent necessary component in adapting for the screen. The best in this reviewer’s estimation is when it never diverges from song but to balance this you need both great actors and singers. This is why nearly 25 years later, “Evita” as an adaptation that still ranks among the best as well as something like “Oliver.” With the new addition of “Cats”, it continues a progression of adaptations like “Nine” which didn’t necessarily need to be made. Even with Universal’s “Mamma Mia” and its vastly superior sequel “Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again”, there was a balance of tone that needed to be found. That is not the case here but again, that was the essence of the musical as well.
“Cats” wants to be and about something but it just doesn’t know what. Like many of Universal’s films in the past it is a big swing that inherently doesn’t work save for some inspired moments. The music itself, unlike Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom Of The Opera,” is more 70s synth inspired so it is not classical based but more a perspective of jazz and funk with an element of acid. Certain sequences that one would think would be more intense like Ian McKellan’s older Gus approach feels flat whereas the Skimbleshanks Tap Cat is absolute glee but with intensity, showmanship and barrel roll pace. It is the only scene where Hooper seems to take the film out of the main soundstage and makes it cinematic. That is what the film is missing most of the time but inherently that would be even more expensive. They were trying so hard to make sure the cats effects on the actors look good, they forgot that it is all about the feeling. The film instead is made for the die hard theater goer and not the broader audience base.
The one person beyond that who perhaps knows what the film needs is Judi Dench as Deuteronomy. As a point of contention, she is the most unlikely member of the cast one would think but she gives a sense of whimsy and weight, especially in the final moments. She has a wink in her eye but it is not as glaringly overplayed as say Minnie Driver in “Phantom Of The Opera”. Idris Elba as the villain Macavity per se has the intention but it plays more to a cartoonish representation slinking around with a sense of mischief. The tone, like with the play, can be all over the place as each cat is so different. Like Skimbleshanks, Jason Derulo doing “Rum Tum Tugger” is fantastic in its own way because it is funk personified. In an overall way, many of the bits as well as the slight off-kilter production design reminds this reviewer of “The Wiz”, another slightly misguided adaptation with whimsy and brilliance peppered in but missing something ultimately.
The one undeniable point which was apparent through and through from the trailer and is the most powerful point of the movie was Jennifer Hudson as Grizabella. Her painful and powerful rendition of “Memories” and its eventual progression is heart wrenching. But again, it is its own movie and a minute amount of screen time in the overall construct. It is the rock of the play but that is all that it is. James Corden and Rebel Wilson’s respective vignettes are their own ideals. “Cats” might have worked better as a music video episodic. It is so many things without being one. While the throughline is becoming a Jelicle Cat is very vague, the stream that is supposed to keep it together is Victoria (played by Franscesca Hayward). She is adequate but her performance shows she is overwhelmed by all around her. While this is part of her character make up, a stronger lead would have helped but again one does not want to overwhelm the main stars.
Taylor Swift, also joins the aspect on centerpiece scene involving catnip. She wants to be a vixen at the center of the showstopper but most of the time, she tries so hard that is never comes off as authentic. She is not that vixen and is not a dancer but almost doesn’t try (possibly for fear of looking awkward). She loves cats in general so her inclusion is completely understood and warranted. It also provides the film its new song “Beautiful Ghosts” which Swift wrote with Webber. A good marketing angle for sure.
“Cats” is its own monster in a sometimes off-putting but undeniably unique way. The blend of too much and too little. For example, the inherent way the cats interact with noses and rubbing their heads together is a creative choice as is much of the choreographing but it almost overbearing but not quite so. The musical scitzophrenia is part of the show’s undeniable draw but also the hardest aspect to adapt. In years to come “Cats” will likely gain a following. The talent is diversified and intensive. The direction shows a world but perhaps one racing too much towards the finish line. When it stops for a moment and breathes, it runs the risk of collapsing under its own intentions.
By Tim Wassberg