There’s only one movie in theaters this holiday season where you can see tap, ballet, hip-hop, and other dance styles performed by CGI cat-people (or are they people-cats?) and you can bet it’s not the latest Star Wars movie. It’s also not exactly good, at least in the way that nearly everyone who watches movies defines the word. It’s something else entirely, an experience that’s equal parts unique and mystifying.
Perhaps predictably, that’s what you get when you combine titular things like Tom Hooper and Cats. The former is an Oscar winner plagued by an unhealthy obsession with Dutch angles and the latter is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s long-running Broadway musical smash about feisty felines trying to sing their way to what may or may not be their version of Heaven. So uh, yeah, try parsing those two together and you get, well, this.
The result, Cats, is essentially just the stage show on the big screen, except weirder, scarier, cockroachier, and starring a bunch of really recognizable famous people covered in fur that never obscures their famous faces. Just because Judi Dench (“Victoria and Abdul”) has a fur coat over top of her fur body and her ears are on top of her head doesn’t mean anyone will miss the fact that it is indeed Judi Dench up there on the screen, breaking the fourth wall in an uncomfortably long close-up.
The same goes for Jennifer Hudson (“Lullaby”), Ian McKellen (“The Good Liar”), Idris Elba (“Molly’s Game”), Rebel Wilson (“Jojo Rabbit”), James Corden (“Yesterday”), Taylor Swift (“The Lorax”), and Jason Derulo, all of whom have a musical number dedicated to their cat character, but thankfully only one of which emphasizes Corden clutching his groin in a gag involving over-sized trash cans.
Making sure to cover all his bases, Hooper tries to further please those in the audience for which that moment will be the movie’s highlight by including another scene where a cat character gets smacked in the crotch, this time by a heavy swinging chain. If you’re tempted to say “meowch!” at the thought of such a thing, then Cats is most certainly the movie for you.
If cats getting hit in their hidden genitals isn’t your thing, though, there are numerous cat puns uttered throughout, some of which don’t even attempt to be clever (“Cat got your tongue?” is asked by one cat of another during a prickly exchange, leaving the recipient of that clever burn understandably speechless). There are also numerous scenes illuminated by a neon glow, as the cat-people prowl around the streets of a human-sized city with bright signage everywhere. The movie may be a visual representation of Hooper coughing up a hairball, but at least it’s a very colorful hairball!
One might also appreciate that, despite adding a bit of dialogue to ease the plot progression of the generally sung-through musical, Hooper and co-writer Lee Hall never actually bother to spell things out for newbie viewers. There’s a lot of talk about Jellicle cats and the evilness of Elba’s magically teleporting feline villain Macavity and the desire of all the cats to get granted a one-way ticket to the Heavyside Layer, but good luck making any sense of it that you didn’t already make of the stage show you either did or didn’t see.
In some ways, that’s part of the charm to Cats, both for the stage version and the big screen iteration. It’s all so damn weird and you’re expected to just go with it, accept that these humanoid cats belting out tunes as though the very fate of their species depends on it are so earnest about their plight because their fate really does depend on it. Of course, cinema both expands the potential scope and demands a stricter adherence to realism, neither of which serve this specific material particularly well.
There are multiple locations in this version, from an old theater to a well-furnished house to a milk bar (yes, seriously) to a barge anchored on the Thames, but the changes in scenery aren’t likely enough to swing any viewer from derision to delight on their own. The decision to justify the big-screen-ification of the stage show by going the digital route with the cat characters, though, is definitely enough to ensure audiences won’t soon forget the sights and sounds on display here.
The allure of a large-scale production from a director whose last three movies have earned their actors Oscars (“The Danish Girl,” “Les Misérables” and “The King’s Speech”) means that Cats faces the unusual position of attracting a big-name cast to play characters that occupy the visual space between cats and human movie stars. Putting everyone in motion-capture suits so that they can be awkwardly animated while prancing around on over-sized sets that promise to cause headaches for anyone attempting to comprehend the validity of the proportioning is certainly one way to make your adaptation stand out.
Perhaps the static sets of the stage and the need to rely on mere makeup and the power of the audience’s imagination really is the key to making this nuttiness work. If that’s the case, then why didn’t anyone tell Tom Hooper this before he embarked on such a questionable quest? Now everyone has catnip-flavored egg on their face and James Corden took a trash can rim between the legs for nothing. The various people involved who thought this was their (one-way or return) ticket to prestige and glory are probably eager to start pointing fingers of blame now, but it might do them good to remember the old adage: To err is human, to forgive feline.