Thirty-eight years ago, a upstart composer called Andrew Lloyd Webber, having previously made a name for himself by adapting Bible stories and tales of Argentine First Ladies into gaudy stage musicals, turned his creative attention to an obscure T.S. Elliot poetry collection. The result was an absurd fantasy musical theatre production about a band of felines (“Jellicle cats”) who gather one night a year by the light of the full moon to put on an annual talent show in which the grand prize is the chance to commit suicide (er, go to the Heavyside Layer). The show ran for 21 years and 8,949 performances at the New London Theatre; across the pond, those kitties made it for 18 years and 7,485 performances at the Winter Garden Theatre Broadway. The long ensuing decades have seen untold touring companies and long-running revivals sing and dance their way through “Memory” and a bunch of songs that everyone immediately forgets. Uncountable black T-shirts with that iconic pair of glimmering yellow eyes have been sold to nascent theatre kids as a badge of honor.
But it took until this year for this mysteriously popular, largely plotless, multiple prize winner to pounce onto the big screen. The director brave, or rather foolhardy, enough to make this leap is Tom Hooper. His previous stage-to-screen adaptation, Les Misérables, made Anne Hathaway’s dream come true by way of live singing of varying quality, extreme Dutch angles, and otolaryngology-worthy camerawork. Here, he sheds the spandex and faux fur that made the stage show at least a camp classic and drags Cats to the screen via the power of green screens, motion capture, and perpetually unsettling array of CGI.
In an era of intentionally deceptive trailers, the very first look at Cats turned out to be refreshingly honest in terms of expectation setting. Actors, transformed through digital sorcery into deeply disturbing tiny human-feline hybrids, singing songs about being cats while dancing, singing, and cracking wise on an oversized sets. Here, the original production’s setting is moved from a junkyard to London’s West End theater district and the lightest elements of a linear plot structure are imposed by turning the “ballet cat” Victoria (played by Royal Ballet principal dancer, Francesca Hayward) into a newcomer and our primary guide into this strange and upsetting world.
In a not-particularly-effective form of pet abandonment, she arrives on the scene hurled from an antique car in burlap sack. Freed by her curious fellow felines, she performs a dance and takes in the scenery. Wide-eyed and possibly amnesiac, it’s not clear whether she’s meant to be a kitten. In any case she’s as confused by the word “Jellicle” as the rest of us, so at least we have good company on that front.
In turn, each of the other cats introduce themselves through song and dance, generally variations on the many ways that cats are basically jerks. Some are proud of their frustratig indecisions (“Rum Tum Tugger”, Jason Derulo), others are lazy by day but choreographers by night (“Jennyanydots”, Rebel Wilson, also tasked with the most cringe-inducing one-liners), others are petty criminals who destroy houses and blame the dogs for their mischief (“Mungojerrie” and “Rumpleteazer”, dancers Danny Collins and Naoimh Morgan), others are possibly rich and fat overeaters (“Bustopher Jones”, James Corden in spats, with the only real laugh lines, regrettably few and far between), some are Taylor Swift (“Bombalurina”, a catnip-peddling vixen who shows up for one number and wrote an original song for a swing at EGOT). If I have made any of this seem lively or entertaining rather than anesthetizing, I sincerely apologize for the misdirection.
Although we never learn what “Jellicle” means, we are eventually told that it’s the night of the Jellicle Ball, presided over by the much-anticipated arrival of “Old Deuteronomy” the ancient and powerful cat who will send one lucky and deserving contestant to the “Heavyside Layer”. Wikipedia tells me that this role is traditionally reserved for an Old Man cat, but goddamn it, it’s the year 2019 and if Judi Dench wants to don a fur coat and whiskers to judge a talent show then who the hell are we to stand in the way of letting her finally smashing through the glass ceiling? Why she wanted to do this or whether she regretted it immediately or not until much later remains a question left for the ages. At various points in the revue, Ian McKellan licks milk from a plate, the whole company tap dances on a railroad track. I can’t decide which of these images will haunt me longest.
The drama of this little story, such that it is, arises from Idris Elba menaces from the shadows as the villain (“Macavity”, the mean cat) who schemes to win the competition by teleporting his competitors to a raft on the Thames. Every time he does this, murmurs of uncharitable laughter bubbled through the theater. Despite being known as a master criminal, he waits to zap them into captivity (cat-tivity?) only after they’ve sung their songs, which is only one of the many parts of this scheme that seems less than well-considered. After quite a bit of hoopla and some dead-in-the-water one-liners, the kidnapping plot is resolved by a horny magician cat (“Mr. Mistoffelees”, Laurie Davidson among the film’s few charms) who gains true powers through the collective belief of an audience singalong that puts the emotional climax of Judy to shame in the cornball department. Eventually, a brokedown old cat that everyone hates for unspoken reasons — maybe something about her poor life choices and/or an uncharacteristic lack of sex-positivity among the Jellicles? — drags herself into the theater and sings “Memory” (“Grizabella”, Jennifer Hudson, having made a name for herself in the trenches as an American Idol songtestant before winning her Oscar, is no stranger to the melisma and excessive emotional interpretation required to make an impression in a crowded field). It’s the most famous song from the musical, so of course she wins and is sent off to her death in a hot air balloon.
As morning finally arrives, everyone gathers, now somehow closer to human sized, in Trafalgar square to sing an upbeat song about how cats are “very much like you”. I think this is supposed to be cheery, but given everything we’ve seen, it somehow feels more like an indictment. Does young Victoria ever find out what “Jellicle” means? Maybe. Do we? Definitely not.
You might wonder whether the uncanny valley of computerized fur and shifting proportions promised by the trailer ever flattens into cognitively tolerable territory. The film somehow resists that at every turn. Just when I started to accept the human hands and feet on catlike bodies (“why not give them paws?” my subconscious screams), one shows up wearing human shoes and my mind was thrown into another tailspin of unease. Then yet another starts tap dancing and my skin crawled in discomfort all over again. One might think that the transformation of people into disproportioned cats with whispy whiskers, twitchy ears, and ever-winding tails is as soul rattling as it gets, but then you scream in disgust at the sight of people conjured into mouse form. Curiously, the humans in cockroach costumes were the most endearing — I blame/credit Isabella Rossellini — but then the cats eat them and it gets gross all over again. The galvanting in fur might seem as creepy as it gets, but then Rebel Wilson unzips her fur suit to reveal a flashy dance costume underneath and a whole new wave of body horror sends shivers down your spine. I did notice some loose correlation between celebrity stature, amount of costuming, and degree of disturbingness. What else could explain the mix of clothed and unclothed cats? Dench and McKellan clad in mostly head-to-toe drapey costuming escape the worst of it, suggesting final rendering approval built into the riders; Elba’s furry thrift store gangster garb keeps him immune until he’s shockingly stripped at the end; Mistoffelees, with his button-spangled coat and top hat approaches a kind of cuteness. Yet, furry celebrities and dancers rubbing their heads together to express affection is never not squirm-inducingly awkward.
To be completely honest, I had no illusion that Cats would be great, but I harbored remote hope that the likely spectacular and bizarre failure would at least be interesting. No such luck. It’s self-sincerity and steadfast determination obliterates that possibility. So maybe devotees will enjoy gathering in movie theaters to hear the songs. However, most audiences will need more than that. It’s one thing for it to be bad — of course it was going to be — but worse than that, it’s boring. ☆½