Cats is a 2019 Fantasy Musical directed by Tom Hooper, released on December 20, 2020. It’s a modern composition drawing from the 1939 poetry collection, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, by T.S. Elliot. Andrew Lloyd Webber also did a musical composition based on said collection in 1981. This is a VERY important version as it ran for 21 years in London and 18 years on Broadway (with a few revivals along the way) making it one of the longest running productions in both districts for a great while. It was adapted into a video in 1998, likely the version many are familiar with.
But lets get to it.
The premise of Cats is, roughly, every year a band of cats known as the Jellicle Cats get together in what I presume to be London to have a talent show to decide who gets to ascend to the Heaviside Layer to lead a new life. A slight oversimplification, no doubt, but in properties that have a magic realism blend (like this and “I Kill Giants”) it can become hard to tell how much of this is literal and how much is metaphor.
There’s roughly 30 characters in this film – I ain’t listing them all. Therefore, I’ll name the ones of most importance to the plot. You’ve got Francesca Hayward as Victoria, the white cat that gets tossed into and abandoned in the Jellicle Cats district at the opening of the film. Robbie Fairchild and Laurie Davidson, as Munkustrap and Mr Mistoffelees the magician respectively, take turns guiding Victoria around. Rebel Wilson (as Jennyanydots), James Corden (as Bustopher Jones) and Jason Derulo (as Rum Tum Tiger) act as Victoria’s, and the audiences, introduction to some of the whimsical faces in her new home. Jennifer Hudson plays Grizabella, an ostracized former “glamour cat” who’s fallen on hard times. Ian McKellen plays the cast’s other “old great”, as Gus, a former Theater Cat with palsy who laments the present crop replacing him. Judi Dench is this version’s Old Deuteronomy, the arbiter of who gets to ascend to Heaviside, and Idris Elba acts as Macavity, the main villain trying to hijack the process. Oh yeah, there’s also a Taylor Swift cat that dances about and sprinkles catnip on everyone while singing about Macavity’s infamy….so, yeah.
Surprisingly, the main designs kinda work – at least better than everyone thought they would. They’re alright for the course as these kinds of things can go HORRIBLY wrong. Thank God they didn’t. But I won’t oversell them – you’re likely to be moderately uncomfortable for the first 10 or so minutes as you make heads or tails of the creatures you’re seeing on your screen and how they fit with the world around them. You’re just going to have to do your adjusting on the go because the minute Victoria literally hits the ground, the cast starts dancing and singing and slinking around each other and there is no time or space for adjustment.
And it’s on that note that I turn my eyes towards some of Cats’ weaker points. I’m assuming that this was created with a similar mindset as the original 1981 incarnation: a theatre production. But a theatre production this isn’t, not quite. Mcluhan would have a field day with this. Cats is a movie and even though one may be inclined to assume that this is of no consequence (you are still watching people preform, after all), the mindset the audience is in and the surface level elements of the production (as well as how well they mesh) are of the utmost importance. The easiest place to see this disconnect is in conjunction with the plot. Said plot is pretty simplistic for all of the stuff that’s happening on screen. There is a song and dance for practically every person (and event) in this movie…and it is exhausting. It’s like a burrito, but instead of the ingredients being laid out lengthwise, they’re placed in the tortilla in widthwise globs. A traditional movie is a curated view of a collection of connected events. Characterization, plot points and worldbuilding are all blended and expressed together at a reasonable pace. Cats, on the other hand is content to make you eat two cups of sour cream at once.
Many complained about the movie being boring at times and I can’t disagree. That stems partly from my previous point. Take a look at one of the opening themes: Jellicle Songs For Jellicle Cats. That’s a lot to take in. You won’t get it on your first try, much less process it, and you won’t get another chance. If you’re in standard audience mode, you’re going to be left bewildered and wondering if you missed something important. After you realize that this movie has essentially one important event and that few of these songs have any bearing on it, you let go and take the song and dance numbers as they are. If you’re enjoying the song and associated dance/performance, then you’ll like this movie for the next 7 or so minutes, otherwise you’re going to hate it. Furthermore, the Jellicle Ball, said important event, starts without the pomp and circumstance that said event SHOULD have. I mean, there’s this dance off where a few different styles try and flex on each other – but dancing isn’t novel by this point.
It isn’t a complete wash, though. Cats starts obtuse and gets better as it gets smaller and more intimate. As all the theatre cadence and dancing lessens and becomes part of the background, the characters and their hopes and desires take the forefront – THAT’S where the fun is. Beautiful Ghosts as first sung by Victoria and Grizabella (and it’s various reprises) is a real treat. Mr Mistoffelees’ magic number is another one. I won’t lie – the emotional joy of experiencing those two, and Taylor Swift’s number (don’t judge me), are probably the height of the viewing experience. Not that the technical craft isn’t refined in and of itself, I’m sure this production was murder on the actors, directors and set staff, just that the part that resonates isn’t the riveting fur placement.
Cats is a fair to middling mix of cat and human that works just enough of the time. I have no desire to rewatch this movie, but I also don’t regret watching it either. However, I’m not foolish enough to deny that for most of you, Cats isn’t worth the watch. For everyone not feeling too brave, I’d suggest buying the album when it’s available and listening to that instead.