Directed by Tom Hooper
Starring Francesca Hayward, Judi Dench, Idris Elba
Oh, Cats. Where to begin, where to begin. How about at the very beginning? All the way back to 1939, when T.S. Eliot wrote Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, a compendium of poems written about the different breeds, behaviors, and general inscrutability of cats, devised (according to literary lore) to amuse his godchildren. Thirty eight years later, in 1977, Eliot’s sweet, sly, and surprisingly profound poetry inspired Evita hitmaker Andrew Lloyd Webber to set his words to music, with the composer envisioning his songs as parts of a loosely structured concert. Another four years later, in 1981, under the stewardship of producer Cameron Mackintosh and director Trevor Nunn, Cats opened on the West End, beginning its tenure as one of the longest-running musicals in the world.
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Why mention the history of Cats? Because at its earliest phase, even its composer had the instinct to not impose a plot or even a semblance of conflict on his work. As the musical was originally staged, it resembled something of a Feline Got Talent: Members of a cat tribe named Jellicles gather for an annual event called the “Jellicle Choice,” a night when they compete to ascend to a higher level of existence called the Heaviside Layer. Adults in furry cat suits perform their one song for a head cat honcho named Old Deuteronomy, and then disappear. And even after all that streamlined “plotting,” even after generations of theater-goers have thrilled to the build and climax of “Memory” or clapped along to the infectious “Magical Mister Mistoffelees,” Cats is still an acquired taste.
Which is why thickening the plot or ascribing deeper motivations to these dancing cats when adapting this difficult source material is folly. Then again, after the stale, cold smell of the bad reviews that have plagued Cats since its big-screen premiere, piling on with another scathing critique might leave me open to accusations of schadenfreude. So all I’m going to do is ask director and co-writer Tom Hooper—he of the off-kilter framing of The King’s Speech and the deliberate soft-focus lensing of The Danish Girl—some questions:
• Why is there no sense of scale to your cats? Sometimes they’re in giant rooms that make them look like mice, and sometimes they’re standing next to fountains in your Trafalgar Square set at heights that make them look like monkeys.
• Why does lazy tabby Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson) preside over a chorus line of cockroaches with human faces on them? And why does she unzip her fur and reveal a halter top underneath? Does this mean that her real skin is fur with underwear sewn onto it?
• Why do you have to have frantic, multiple cuts every time there’s a dance number? Why hire principal dancer of the Royal Ballet Francesca Hayward as your newbie cat Victoria, or give prolonged screen time to an experienced dancer like Robbie Fairchild (playing exposition cat Munkustrap) if you’re not going to chill out and let me watch them dance?
• How did you convince Dame Judi Dench—Trevor Nunn’s original choice to play Jennyanydots, by the way—to play Old Deuteronomy and lie down in what is essentially a dolled-up kitty litter basket?
• When you showed Sir Ian McKellen as theater cat Gus lapping up milk in a closet, did you have an appreciation for the unintentional symbolism? Kindly elaborate.
• I couldn’t really tell you what the song “Memory” is about, but did Jennifer Hudson really have to emote with snot running from her nose? Couldn’t she have squeezed in a trip to the veterinarian for that cold?
• When putative villain Macavity (Idris Elba) spirits away his competitors using magic dust and deposits them on a barge in the Thames, is this behavior observed directly from real-life felines?
• When Old Deuteronomy and Macavity appear wearing fur coats, is this some form of fashion cannibalism?
• Did Taylor Swift, as Macavity moll and catnip pusher Bombalurina, really have to make her entrance riding the Dreamworks logo?
• Why turn an enjoyable, nonsense ditty like “Magical Mister Mistoffelees” into the climax of a kidnapping plot? Isn’t that a bit like retrofitting “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” into an aria?
So many questions, so little chance at a satisfying explanation. The most charitable thing I can say about Tom Hooper’s Cats is that it will most likely spend the rest of its nine lives as a cult classic, the kind of so-bad-it’s-actually-genius masterwork that cinephiles will cheer at and chew over every few years or so. But here we are at first viewing, without a single sensible point of reference to suspend our disbelief from, and all we can do is wonder what possessed these presumably sane filmmakers to cough up this hairball.
Photographs from Universal Pictures