Cats Is Far From Puuurfect (Movie Review)

Tom Hooper’s loud, bombastic adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s long-running loud bombastic 80s  musical should have been much weirder and wilder. The internet had plenty of jeers and OMGs when the trailer dropped in July. Being skeptical and as curious as a well, you know, I assumed Cats would either be a triumph or a so-bad-it’s-good-to-watch trainwreck. Sadly, the movie despite a more than game cast slinks about on a soundstage rendered with a too fuzzy feline CGI filter. Boring is not a word I thought I would use but here we are.  

First off, there isn’t much of a plot. Like the musical, it’s simply a series of song and dance numbers inspired by T.S. Eliot’s 1939 poetry collection, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. The “story” is about a bunch of alley cats (and a few domesticated) who call themselves the Jellicle Cats.

They are led by  Old Deuteronomy (Dame Judi Dench) who decides each year which J-cat will ascend to Heaviside Layer. Is it a cat afterlife? Or just a way for frisky felines to waste one of their nine lives?

The film opens with a new kitten (Francesca Haywood) being brought into the fold. Similar to how Pac-Man has ghosts called Pinky, Blinky, Inky.. and “Clyde” this new kitty is rather unremarkably named Victoria while the other characters will force anyone writing a review to cut and paste their names. There’s even a song about how cats get their “real” names and it’s cleverly titled… “The Naming of Cats.”

I’m a fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita; both the Broadway version with Patti LuPone and the 1996 film directed by Alan Parker starring MaddonaI’m still waiting for an all-muppet version of Jesus Christ Superstar, darn it. That said, Webber’s musicals are not at all easy to dive into like say,  Rogers & Hammerstein.

Nearly all the dialogue in his work is sung. Coined ‘rock operas’ in the 70s, the term still applies. Credit Webber’s insistence on denying the normal speak for a bit and then break out into song structure as paving the way for the highs of Lin Manuel-Miranda’s Hamilton rapping hit. You really gotta be in the mood for this type of thing.

Clearly, this crazy talented cast was. Idris Elba, Sir Ian McKellan, Jennifer Hudson, and Taylor Swift, to name the big ones, committed a thousand percent. Even the less effective likes of Rebel Wilson (Jojo Rabbit) as a  rat rustler who easts cockroaches (as gross as it sounds) is the comedian trying her best. Ditto  James Corden as a fat cat that loves to dumpster dive for food (shocker!)

Fans of Tswizzle will be pleased as her big solo number, “Macavity: The Mystery Cat” is a showstopper. The pop icon is at ease vamping it up as Bombalurina who’s a henchcat to Elba’s sneaky Macavity. (Man, these names.) Swift clearly has the pipes. Her larger than life persona fits the feline track which oozes with lounge bar sultriness.

However, a talented group of performers can’t overcome the numerous problems plaguing the filmed version. Surprisingly, the computer-generated Cat Look isn’t an uncanny valley issue. Every so often I’d get a good look at Judi Dench’s Cowardly Lion-like fur and be amazed. The problem is that too often, the whole screen is bathed in a soft haze that hides the rendering flaws. A shame since when the colors pop the tiny hairs of fur on the actors or the striking neon glow of 1930s London, eye candy abounds.

The main issue is Tom Hooper’s (Les Misérables) apparent lack of vision. The director claims he had been a fan of the musical since he was a kid. I have no doubt anyone that takes on a reportedly 65 million dollar venture for Universal has the best of intentions. Yet, I’m not convinced Hooper wanted to do more than dress the stage, add the VFX and call “action!” Too many close-ups override a sense of space. The big oversized sets like a frenzied pillow fight on a hooman bed, fail to elevate the material.

Worse, the shot composition by DP Christopher Ross is uninspired. Nearly every one of the numerous songs is framed the same. A few wide shots. A tracking shot. A big zoom as the music swells. Rinse repeat.

So while Jennifer Hudson can deliver a terrific rendition of “Memories” even that hit feels familiar instead of a well, memorable. Too often a sense of monotony sets in. Swift also co-wrote a new song “Beautiful Ghosts” which is performed by professional ballet dancer Francesca Hayden. It’s a solid addition that pairs well with “Memories” yet still not much is done do make the song come to life beyond Hayden’s angelic voice and incredible dance moves.

I’m not sure exactly what I wanted from Cats. Sadly, I have a feeling Hooper didn’t either as Cats is a dog of a show.

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