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CATS (2019) review

January 9, 2020



written by: Lee Hall and Tom Hooper (screenplay),  Andrew Lloyd Webber (music), T.S. Eliot (poetry collection “Old Possum’s Books of Practical Cats”)
produced by: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Debra Hayward, Tom Hooper
directed by: Tom Hooper
rated: PG (for sci-fi violence and action)
runtime: 110 min.
U.S. release date: December 20, 2019


“Jellicles are and Jellicles do. Jellicles do and Jellicles would. Jellicles would and Jellicles can. Jellicles can and Jellicles do.”


When running down the list of Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals that might eventually get turned into movies, I assumed the roller skating musical “Starlight Express” was the only thing keeping “Cats” from ranking dead last. The ludicrousness of turning “Cats” into a movie is more or less the inciting incident of another play turned into a film, “Six Degrees of Separation,” and it’s played for a laugh in that piece. Surely no one in their right mind would actually turn “Cats” into a film*, let alone an Oscar winning “capital-P Prestige” filmmaker.

2019 was the year anything could happen and, all of the above sarcasm aside, the existence of “Cats” from director Tom Hooper should be all the proof one needs. Only a decade ago, Hooper went from directing mostly television to the guy who beat David Fincher, Darren Aronofsky, David O. Russell, and The Coen Brothers for the Best Director Oscar. Since that time, he turned another musical thought too sprawling to adapt into an Oscar winning movie, and also made that movie for which Alicia Vikander won an Oscar—no, sadly, it wasn’t “Ex Machina.” Overall, Hooper seemed like a guy who took careful consideration as to what movie he’d make next, always with an eye toward the aforementioned “Capital-P Prestige.”




All of this context is provided in an effort to try and understand why this particular director would turn this particular property into a film. One might reasonably assume that it’s also a bit of verbal knife-sharpening for a scathing takedown, but it’s not, I promise. While the film is a complete and utter catastrophe—pun fully intended—it’s for no other reason than that “Cats” itself has always been one. “Cats” is messy, bizarre, borderline unsettling, hyper sexualized, and it has always been all of those things. None of them are exclusive to Hooper’s film.

From the moment Lloyd Webber thought to set T.S. Eliot’s verse about our feline friends to music, it’s been a laughably terrible idea, but something about the theatrical experience connected with audiences. In its most lavish incarnations—Broadway, London’s West End, etc.—the show truly transported an audience to a junkyard where people-sized cats sang, danced, and roamed the audience to give them an immersive theatrical experience. That notion simply cannot work on film, leaving its filmmaker to either try something bold or play it safe.




Hooper instead splits the difference between doing something truly revolutionary with the material and pleasing the countless millions who already adore its theatrical nature. While he doesn’t wholly reject the more intimate style of his previous musical adaptation—the camera often weaves around in close proximity to the performers— Hooper does give this effort more of a presentational style. He also embraces the source material’s theatricality in a way he did not with “Les Miserables,” likely wanting to keep the musical’s fans satisfied.

Unfortunately, the film fails newcomers to the material most of all. It’s just far too weird and—pardon the pun—neuters some of the expositional stuff that diehards know by heart. This, in turn, is likely to leave anyone coming to “Cats” for the first time bewildered and much more aware of the episodic nature of the endeavor, as cat after cat sing about themselves in turn.

The diehards, on the other hand, will likely be less forgiving of Hooper and his co-adapter Lee Hall’s noble but failed attempts to give the piece a coherent narrative. Part of the charm of “Cats” is its go-with-the-flow nature, and the faster one accepts that there really is no story here, the more an audience will enjoy it. While they succeed in giving “Cats” a story, it’s a bit like putting training wheels back on a bike whose rider had long since moved past them.




Apart from the garishly cartoonish roles played by the garishly cartoonish Rebel Wilson and James Corden—the latter looking like Mike Myers’ Cat in the Hat meets Mike Myers’ Fat Bastard—the cast is dedicated in all the right ways. Ian McKellen and Judi Dench bring the same level of commitment to their roles as the film’s elder states-cats that they did to the respective roles of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in 1979. Jennifer Hudson practically floods the set with a deluge of tears, while Idris Elba brings an almost questionable level of dedication to the whisker-twirling villain role. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention that Ray Winstone is also in this movie as the bad cat’s number two—more or less the cat version of his character from “The Departed.”

At its core, the problem with “Cats” as a film has nothing to do with the dedication of the cast or the creative team, particularly those who spent countless sleepless nights completing its visual effects. Like many earnest endeavors, “Cats” wears the hard work of everyone involved on its sleeve, but as mama always said, good intentions don’t pay the bills.

Unlike the rowdy teens at my screening who thought they’d have a larf at the film’s expense, I was endlessly fascinated by “Cats.” I also went into the film as a fan of the musical, so I can’t help but sit up in my seat when the characters start singing about how Jellicles can and Jellicles do. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, Tom Hooper’s “Cats” isn’t a great place to start. One is almost required to be a fan of the source material to derive any non-ironic joy from this film, but it’s also bound to create an existential crisis within those same fans.




While it’s all well and good to make concessions to one set of audience members, such concessions are almost guaranteed to turn-off the other set. It’s a tightrope walk every film makes on that journey toward being populist entertainment, but the mechanics shouldn’t be this obvious. Watching “Cats” is watching a film at war with itself, struggling to determine exactly what kind of film it aspires to be. Weirdness like cockroaches and mice with human faces resides alongside intensely earnest and emotive sing

Had Hooper and his team just gone for it and replaced his actors’ hands with paws, cranked up the camp, and made something truly bizarre, in the spirit of the original production, “Cats” might have been great. Surely another faction of the audience would loathe it to its core, but at least it would be something with the courage of its conviction. Cult audiences will make their way to this eventually, while the rest of us will mourn the camp classic that could have been. So much for trying to please everybody.



RATING: **1/2


*Yes, I know they put out a movie version of “Cats” in the late 90s, but that was basically a filmed production of the stage show, so it doesn’t count.





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