‘Cats’ – movie not nearly as good as the musical
By Eleanor Ringel Cater
I originally saw “Cats” at a SAG preview in 1982, about a week before it opened on Broadway.
Since I didn’t know I was supposed to dislike it, I loved it. Just loved it. True, it didn’t really go anywhere and there were some twee bits, but mostly I adored Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score and reveled in the exquisite dancing of the feline ensemble cast.
“Cats” now and forever? Hell, yeah.
Then, as it ran its course – 18 years in New York, 21 in the West End – it was drummed into me that “Cats” was, well, crap. Kitty-litter kitsch for tourists.
By the time Tom Hooper’s movie version was ready, I’d spent months sharpening my critical claws. Fool me once, shame on you…. and all that.
I wasn’t alone. Critics had a field day shredding the film with practiced disdain. But by the time I got around to seeing it, it was already gone from theaters.
So, I experienced it at home, in the now-familiar embrace of social distancing and home streaming.
And…some of it I liked, and some of it, well, some of it was like watching a movie cough up a hairball.
Based on T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” the plot is as paper-thin as ever – though, when you think about it, it’s not all that different from “A Chorus Line.” In Michael Bennett’s brilliant musical (which became a far worse movie than Hooper’s “Cats”), a line of dancers audition for a God-like director, revealing themselves and their dance skills in hopes of getting a spot in his new show.
“Cats” is remarkably similar, except it’s about a bunch of feral alley cats presenting themselves to a wise old feline known as Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) in hopes of being taken to the “Heaviside Layer,” i.e., being granted a new life.
Hooper, who made the marvelous “Les Miserables” and the clever “The King’s Speech,” has worked with his co-writer, Lee Hall, to add a tiny bit more story.
“Cats” begins with a half-seen human in a spiffy car, abandoning a kitten in back-alley ‘20s/’30s London. She turns out to be a vulnerable little white cat named Victoria (well played by Royal Ballet principal dancer, Francesca Howard).
Victoria is immediately adopted by the so-called Jellicle Cats and invited to the Jellicle Ball, at the end of which Old Deuteronomy will announce her choice.
What follows is a series of musical numbers, some more show-stopping than others. There’s Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo), a kind of rock star cat who, back when I first saw him in ‘82, was a sly swipe at the gyrations of Mick Jagger. And Bustopher Jones, a literal fat cat, played with clubby superiority by James Corden. And Shimbleshanks (Steven McRae), the railroad cat, without whom the trains don’t run on time. McRae’s piece involves some nifty dance moves and a show-stopping bit of tap dancing.
And that’s where the problem with “Cats” becomes all too clear (well, for those who love the show, it already was….).
“Cats” is a dance musical. Yes, it is about performers done up in cat drag, doing feline things, but at heart, more than anything else, no disrespect to its great ballad, “Memories,” “Cats” is about dance. And we rarely get that here.
True, the show prances through swing, jazz, rock, British music hall, even operetta. We sense the cast is moving all around – the choreographer is “Hamilton’s’” Andy Blankenbuehler – but we get very little sense of the astonishment of dancing done well (even merely musical comedy well).
On stage, the mischievous twin cat burglars, Rumpleteazer and Mungojerrie, took your breath away. Ditto Mr. Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson) whose magical self was mostly revealed in a late second-act show of bravura dancing.
But here we get a deadening and earthbound Rebel Wilson as Jennyanydots, a comic turn that, nonetheless, calls for movement – not a clumsy, out-of-breath fat girl making “comic” faces. And Mr. Mistoffelees’ magic becomes a matter of special effects, not sublime dance moves. And so, on and on and on
Idris Elba is properly menacing as the show’s villain, Macavity (sexy, too) while Taylor Swift provides a touch of glamour as his hench-cat (she arrives on a quarter moon, singing his praises). And there’s a rather wonderful throwaway moment when Dench and Ian McKellen (as Gus the Theatre Cat) briefly exchange glances and you can almost read the cartoon bubble above their heads: “Has it really come to this?”
Perhaps most disappointing is Jennifer Hudson, as Grizabella, the Glamor Cat. The match of powerhouse performer and powerhouse song (“Memories”) somehow never quite works. I saw a touring company, and nobody knocked it out of the Fox better than poor, ill-served Hudson.
“Cats” should’ve been better and could’ve been worst. One of the last lyrics, straight from Elliot, goes, “So first your memory/ I’ll jog and say/A cat is not a dog.”
And “Cats,” well, it’s not a dog, either.