Arts movie review

‘CATS’: hilarious, if you’re delirious

The film adaptation of the hit Broadway musical is an unfortunate miss

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Jason Derulo stars as Rum Tum Tugger in Tom Hooper's 'Cats.'
Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Directed by Tom Hooper
Written by Lee Hall and Tom Hooper
Based on Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot and the musical, Cats, by Andrew Lloyd Webber 
Starring Francesca Hayward, Idris Elba, Rebel Wilson, Taylor Swift, Jason Derulo
Rated PG, Now Playing

Adapted from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s award-winning musical, CATS follows a tribe of Jellicle cats on the night of the annual Jellicle Ball. The sung-through film showcases the diversity of anthropomorphized cats as they sing and dance for their venerated matriarch, Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench), vying to become her Jellicle choice: the single cat selected for rebirth into a new life. As we hear the backstories of railway conductor cats, scapegoat house cats, gluttonous cats, retired performer cats, magician cats, diva cats, and abandoned stray cats, the “most wanted” criminal cat Macavity (Idris Elba) plots to eliminate the competition to guarantee his victory. Ultimately, the cats must save Old Deuteronomy from Macavity’s clutches so she can make the Jellicle choice.

The peculiar premise is cloaked in confusion — the film defies a traditional narrative structure, composed entirely of song and dance, and the lack of dialogue can disconnect the audience from the storyline. The whole time, I found myself wondering who the various characters were and what they were saying: “angelical cats?” The grandiose choreography and fantastical music are strange but engaging, with cats lifting their tails in unison or rubbing heads to display affection. 

Hooper has assembled a stellar cast of celebrities including Rebel Wilson, Taylor Swift, Jason Derulo, and Jennifer Hudson, whose energetic performances will draw fans to theaters. He also introduces Francesca Hayward, a principal ballerina at London’s Royal Ballet, who stars as Victoria the White Cat. Her character’s delicate mannerisms, compassionate gestures, and rendition of “Beautiful Ghosts” are heartwarming. 

However, the CGI effects are extremely disturbing and squelch the merits of the all-star cast. To see celebrities covered in fur from head to toe while maintaining their human figures feels almost inappropriate, especially for a rated-PG audience. And the absurdity of the story is amplified during the cringe-worthy conclusion, in which all the cats congregate in broad daylight and explain how humans should address cats so they will “condescend to treat you like a trusted friend.” We watch the chosen Jellicle cat ascend in a giant hot air balloon toward the sun. Old Deuteronomy breaks the fourth wall and tells the audience, “a cat is not a dog.” Well, duh.

Unsurprisingly, the movie, like the eponymous musical, has received mixed reviews. The film is intended to be a comedy, and at every bizarre turn of the story, some of the audience burst into laughter, but it missed the mark for me. I wouldn’t watch it again, despite the cameos from my favorite celebrities. My overall impression: this movie was highly eccentric and disconcerting, the stuff of delirious nightmares… but it’s something you might find funny if you like the original musical or if you’re hysterical at 3 a.m..