Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Tom Hooper

Stars: Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, James Corden, Idris Elba, Laurie Davidson, Francesca Hayward, Ray Winstone, Taylor Swift, Jennifer Hudson, Rebel Wilson, Jason Derulo, Robbie Fairchild.

James Corden, Laurie Davidson, and Francesca Hayward in Cats (2019)

Based on T S Eliot’s 1939 book of whimsical poems Old Possum’s Book Of Practical Cats, Cats is set on the night a collection of alley cats gather for an annual ritual known as the Jellicle. The ancient, wise cat Deuteronomy (played here by Judi Dench) will select a special cat who will ascend to the Heaviside Layer and be reborn. Several cats audition, each performing a song that best describes what kind of cat they are. But the devious and magical Macavity (played by Idris Elba) kidnaps the other contestants to ensure that he will be the chosen one. When Deuteronomy refuses to pick him, he also kidnaps her.

A new arrival on the scene is the abandoned cat named Victoria (played by prima ballerina Francesca Hayward in her film debut), who observes the proceedings and befriends the magical cat Mister Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson, from The Good Liar, etc). Victoria also befriends the sad, downtrodden Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson), who is an outcast from the Jellicle society.

This largely faithful but misguided film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s long running Tony award winning hit Broadway musical fantasy has received some of the most scathing reviews of any film this year. Director Tom Hooper is better known for the Oscar winning drama The King’s Speech, and he also brought the musical Les Miserables to the screen in 2012, but he has stumbled badly with this cringeworthy adaptation. Hooper cowrote the script with Lee Hall, who previously wrote Billy Elliott, but this is a bit of a mess. The nonsensical wafer-thin plotting will make little sense to those unfamiliar with the original stage play, which premiered in 1981 and ran for some 18 years.

The pair have set the film in the West End of London of 1939, rather than the 1980s setting of the stage version, which is more in keeping with the period in which Eliot himself lived in London and wrote his poems. Hooper has attempted to emulate the glory days of London’s old music hall theatre tradition. But what worked so well on the stage doesn’t work on the screen. Unfortunately though, Hooper has failed to make Cats seem like a true cinematic treatment of the musical, with obviously fake sets and a too theatrical aesthetic. Much of the film’s action takes place inside the abandoned Egyptian Theatre. There is very little narrative flow between song and dance numbers, and, with a couple of notable exceptions, the musical numbers rarely soar.  

There is something slightly off putting and creepy about seeing the ensemble cast clad in catlike costumes, complete with fur, whiskers and tails, all enhanced by CGI effects, with human faces somehow superimposed on the feline costumes. The performances of the actors were captured through the latest technology of the motion capture process. But the characterisation is thin, and we don’t get to identify or empathise with many of those curious cats as they are briefly introduced.

And if you are making a musical why cast non-singing actors, who perform in that strange hybrid style of talk singing that is irksome? The cast includes the likes of James Corden, Ray Winstone, Ian McKellen, who admittedly brings a touch of pathos to his role as the theatre cat, and a miscast Rebel Wilson, who appear alongside singers like Jason Derulo, Taylor Swift and Jennifer Hudson, who nails Memory, the stand out ballad from a fairly bland and forgettable bunch of tunes. A new song has been added to the film version, with Webber and Taylor Swift penning the original song Beautiful Ghosts.

There is some superb choreography from Tony award winner Andy Blankenbuebler, who incorporates a number of different styles into the dance routines. However, a sequence involving Rebel Wilson and some dancing cockroaches is bizarre and makes little sense. Cats has been edited by his regular collaborator Melanie Oliver, who fails to find a rhythm and the film seems unevenly paced. And then there is the warped scale of Eve Stewart’s bewildering production design which makes everything seem even more surreal. Hooper and his cinematographer Christopher Ross (Yesterday, etc) overuse the hand-held camera in an attempt to give the material a sense of immediacy.

A fellow reviewer remarked that he was moved to tears by this film version of Cats; sorry I was bored to tears!

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