Insipid "Cats" is a boring, psychedelic hairball

BY NEIL MORRIS, CN+R Film Critic
Posted 12/20/19

Seemingly scooped out of the litter box, director Tom Hooper’s screen adaptation of “Cats” is best viewed under the influence of catnip or some other hallucinogenic substance. It’s an awkward rendering of an anachronistic stage musical already lacking a cohesive plot.

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Insipid "Cats" is a boring, psychedelic hairball

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Posted

Seemingly scooped out of the litter box, director Tom Hooper’s screen adaptation of “Cats” is best viewed under the influence of catnip or some other hallucinogenic substance. It’s an awkward rendering of an anachronistic stage musical already lacking a cohesive plot.

I had no idea what I was looking at, and what’s worse, I didn’t really care.

The pounding synth strains of Andrew Lloyd Webber that open the film are the first clue that this 2019 adaptation isn’t going to jettison the relics from the 1981 smash musical, partly spawned from some 1939 T.S. Eliot poetry. The second clue is that Hooper — last seen wrecking “Les Misérables” for the big screen — and screenwriter Lee Hall try to marry the music moogies construct with a limp stab at a motion picture plotline. The Jellicle cats are back, roaming a feline alt universe of early-20th century London, on the eve of the Jellicle Ball, where wise Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench, looking more like the Cowardly Lion) will choose one puss to go to the Heaviside Layer, where they’ll be reborn into a new and better life, presumably one where this film doesn’t exist.

The connective tissue for this premise are a lot of preening, prancing, and solos that are all the character development about most of the caterwauling cats that we get. Jason Derulo’s randy Rum Tum Tugger actually gets things off to a promising start, and a mugging Ian McKellen’s meditation about his by-gone theater career is touchingly on the nose. Otherwise, what Dench does isn’t really considered singing. Rebel Wilson and James Cordon croon about being tubby tabbies. Taylor Swift shows up to vamp through “Macavity,” although the English accent during her scant spoken lines suggests she’s entering a Madonna phase of her career. "Mr. Mistoffelees" NEVER seems to end.

Frances Haywood, whose Victoria the white kitten is our entry point for the entire spectacle, is a trained ballet dancer and it shows, but while she can also carry a tune, her acting comprises clunky delivery and countless cutaways of her appearing either impassive or slightly seductive. Indeed, Hooper chooses to populate this musical performance with unending reaction shots, because when you’re watching a song and dance production, the one thing you want to see, repeatedly, are close-ups of the other characters’ impassive expressions.

Jennifer Hudson gets the honor of powering through the showstopping “Memory,” and she’s more than up to that task. But her morose Grizabella is decidedly single-note, moping around this misbegotten Soho and popping up anytime Hooper needs some pathos. She’s a former glam cat who has fallen into disrepute among the other felines for reasons that are never clarified but seems strangely illicit in nature.

There’s a new but barely expanded subplot involving the aforementioned antagonist Macavity (Idris Elba), who possesses magical powers and plans to hijack the contest for Heaviside by, I dunno, kidnapping the competition and holding them onboard a barge on the Thames? He’s aided by a cockney cat played by Ray Winstone, who just growls a lot.

Much has been made of Hooper’s choice to employ digital technology to superimpose cat features on the actors in lieu of actual costumes. The result takes some getting used to, but it isn’t objectionable. The problem are the visual incongruities. The cats have fur, whiskers, pointed ears, and expressive tails, but also human faces, hands and feet. Some cats wear shoes while others don’t. Macavity and Old Deuteronomy wear fur coats on top of their bodies, and it’s (thankfully?) never explained where the fur came from.

But the real malfeasance is that it’s all so boring. This psychedelic hairball plods through one performance after another with actors lacking the necessary energy that troupers bring to the stage production. Its story makes little sense, and that’s way before the chosen cat floats away in a giant chandelier. “Cats” feels declawed, mercifully—otherwise you might be tempted to scratch your eyes out.

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