Movie Review: ‘Cats’ is a cat-astrophe

This image by Universal Pictures shows Taylor Swift as Bombalurina in a scene from “Cats.” (Universal Pictures via AP)
WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Cats'

Cats may have nine lives, but the new movie “Cats” uses every last one of them.

Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1981 Broadway musical simply does not translate to the screen with trippy visual effects and zero plot to chew on.

Based on T.S. Eliot’s 1931 poetry collection “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” the story — if you generously want to call it that — follows a tribe of London cats called the Jellicles. On this particular night, they must gather together to make the “Jellicle Choice,” deciding which cat will ascend to the Heaviside Layer to be reborn anew.

If you walk out of the theater scratching your head saying, “I don’t get it,” don’t worry; there isn’t much to get. The premise is just as pointless and plotless as it was four decades ago. That’s obviously not the fault of the script, which is faithfully adapted by Tom Hooper and Lee Hall, but rather a fundamental flaw in the original stage book.

Rather than build a character arc for the feline heroine, we get two hours of random character introductions. The same problem bogged down “Suicide Squad” (2016), which introduced new characters for the entire first half. Only in “Cats,” we meet new characters for the entire movie — and they all have increasingly annoying names.

Bombalurina. Bustopher Jones. Old Deuteronomy.

Netflix’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” put it best when Tituss Burgess said there are no real parts in “Cats,” only actors who made up a name, sneaked on stage, pretended they were part of the production and stuck around until they were folded into the story.

Sadly, this lack of structure drags a bunch of great actors down into the kitty litter.

Idris Elba is one of our finest actors, having played killer antagonists from Stringer Bell in “The Wire” to Shere Khan in “The Jungle Book.” However, his “Cats” villain Macavity is too silly to be dangerous, sounding more like a dental hygiene issue than a threat.

Taylor Swift plays Macavity’s cheerleader Bombalurina, dropping from the ceiling on a crescent moon swing for a sassy cabaret number. She also co-writes the chilling new song “Beautiful Ghosts,” which is nominated for Best Original Song at the Golden Globes. Oddly, Swift only sings it over the end credits, not during the film itself.

Instead, the song goes to debut actress Francesca Hayward, who took a sabbatical from London’s Royal Ballet to film “Cats.” It’s hard to judge her performance under all of the motion-capture effects, but she becomes lost in the sea of side characters.

The far better rising star is Laurie Davidson, who got his start as William Shakespeare in the TNT series “Will” (2017) before making his film debut earlier this year in “The Good Liar” (2019). In “Cats,” he dazzles as the magical Mr. Mistoffelees, who doubts his abilities as a magician before realizing his self worth in the most empathetic role.

Fan favorites James Corden and Rebel Wilson attempt comic relief as Bustopher Jones and Jennyanydots, but the visual world surrounding them is often distracting, as the scale between the actors and the scenery shifts. Look closely at Wilson’s cat and her tiny mice friends; their scale is all over the place compared to the kitchen set.

Judi Dench is perhaps the most accurate piece of casting as the wise sage Old Deuteronomy, boasting the gravitas needed for a regal cat in charge of choosing the ascension, like some sort of St. Peter at the Pearly Gates. Similarly, her veteran co-star Ian McKellen also gets a graceful bow as an aging Gus The Theatre Cat.

Your consolation prize for sitting through this mess is watching Jennifer Hudson slay the signature song “Memory” as Grizabella. No doubt the “Dreamgirls” Oscar champ hoped this would be her next award-worthy moment like Anne Hathaway’s “I Dreamed a Dream” in “Les Miserables” (2012), but her character isn’t on screen nearly enough.

Like “Les Mis,” “Cats” keeps its sung-through style, which can be exhausting for moviegoers. Movie musicals work best when they break up the numbers with dialogue scenes like “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952), “West Side Story” (1961) or “The Sound of Music” (1965). It would be one thing if every song fed a story arc, but the lyrical content of “Cats” is often nonsensical. I hope to never hear the word “Jellicle” again.

As a result, “Cats” may just be my tipping point for Hooper. After directing the powerful Best Picture winner “The King’s Speech” (2010), his other films have felt too much like Oscar bait. “Les Mis” (2012) earned an Oscar for Hathaway, but the live singing in intense close-ups was a slog, while “The Danish Girl” (2015) earned Alicia Vikander the gold when she should have won for the far more original “Ex Machina.”

Now, “Cats” is barely on the radar this award season. It’s telling when a film adaptation of a hit Broadway musical can’t even eek out a Golden Globe nomination for Best Picture when there is an entire separate category for Best Comedy/Musical. Usually, it’s a sure thing if you even make a halfway decent movie with a star-studded cast. If you can’t compete with the likes of “Rocketman,” you don’t deserve a spot on stage.

Alas, there’s no use crying over spilled milk. If you’re a die-hard “Cats” fan, this version may suffice. For everyone else, it’s a boo hiss — unless you’re insanely curious to witness something so awesomely bad. Just remember: curiosity killed the cat.

1-out-of-4-stars


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