The thing about Cats, the record-setting Broadway musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and based on a series of poems by T.S. Eliot, is that it exists as a piece of pure, unadulterated imagination. No matter how you may try to wrap your head around the spectacle of dancing, nude-appearing felines singing anthems to themselves, it is still, quite simply, a musical about cats being cats. You either accept it for what it is, in its brain-warping glorious incongruity, or you don’t. This remains true in the adaptation taken to even further extremes on the big screen by director Tom Hooper, assembling a cast of recognizable (if not all desirable) names enshrouded in digital insanity. Whether earnestly accepting its big budget spectacle or basking in schadenfreude or agog in horror, you mileage may indeed vary with what is in store.
The translation from stage to screen finds some needless retinkering that suggests a lack of faith on the audience. This pack of cats, dubbing themselves the Jellicles, are still preparing for the Jellicle Ball, an annual event where the revered Old Deuteronomy (a fur coat clad Judi Dench) will decide which among them will be granted a new life. But this American Idol of feline reincarnation now has a protagonist to explain all of this cat business to, the newly abandoned Victoria (newcomer and Royal Ballet star Francesca Hayward). Also there’s the villainous Macavity (Idris Elba, having the most fun of all) magically stealing away the viable competition for Deuteronomy’s Jellicle Choice in order to secure the spot for himself.
The ultimate effect of the neon and glitter-drenched CGI extravaganza is Hellraiser 2 by way of Roald Dahl, a family entertainment spectacularly drunk on its own supply of batshit. The humans-as-cats effect seldom works, with human faces too large for their heads and an over-reliance on the tails to offer personality – and that’s half the fun. But as the Jellicles flash their crotches and flail about to Lloyd Webber’s stylistically hopscotching score, its manic fever kind of convinces you at the same time it shits on your shoe. The film represents an admirable leap into the unpretentious, making something valuably escapist out of the tacky. Its commitment to its bold aesthetics and fundamentally strange conceptualism deserves its own kind of respect. Audacity or dimwittedness, take your pick – but the film’s spirit rewards a good-faith assessment.
But even a read on the film fully embracing of its world has its limits: without warning, Hooper breaks the fourth wall and has Dench stare into the unprepared soul of the camera and the audience to address them directly. Suddenly, the absurdity of a hairy Judi Dench singing about how to talk to cats while parading as an anthropomorphized cat herself comes blindingly into focus. It’s a swan dive off the plank of acceptability on Hooper’s part, a mistake originating from the lazy concept of the film’s protagonist. On the stage, the Jellicles address the audience throughout, but here they speak to Victoria – and abandoning the conceit at the last minute shuttles Cats into the stuff of midnight madness legend.
Here lies the film’s biggest issue – at least for those willing to embrace the technicolor lunacy of the film’s conceptual reality. There is a cynicism at the heart of Hooper’s narrative approach and the new points of entry provided by Lee Hall’s scripting. Aside from Hooper’s continued lack of musicality in his veins (after the truly embarrassing Les Miserables), he can’t help but try to play armchair sociologist and misjudge the audience’s ability to accept the Jellicle diaspora as mere fanciful invention. We just want it to be about cats, and so does the text. Why does Hooper want to kill the fun?
Most of the film’s ensemble remains unscathed and some even emerge victorious, such as Ian McKellen in a surprisingly lovely turn and the get-in-get-out brassiness of Taylor Swift. Hayward is burdened with a character that’s more of a device than a fully fledged invention (not to mention the worst song in Swift and Webber’s new “Beautiful Ghosts”), stuns in dancing that even the visual effects can’t dampen. Jennifer Hudson, already an Oscar winner after delivering another of the musical theatre’s legendary torch songs in Dreamgirls, is once again rather moving, even if her emotion sacrifices the most distinct melody in the lineup when she weeps through “Memory”.
Cats is no disaster, and perhaps it’s too much of a freight train (hey, Skimbleshanks!) to be encumbered by a director trying graft meaning onto it. But these few miscalculations keep it earthbound, allowing the freakishness to take hold instead of the wonder that could.