Entertainment

The 'Cats' Movie Is Absolutely Deranged, Just as It Should Be

Cats
Universal Pictures

The phenomenon that is Cats has never been easily explicable. It’s an all-singing, all-dancing Broadway musical about cats. Yes, cats. No, nothing but cats, though dogs do get a derogatory mention. And of course the cats are all played by humans. In the lead up to the arrival of the Cats movie, nearly 40 years after the musical first landed in New York City to delight and terrify audiences, director Tom Hooper has tried to imply that the story still has some relevance to today. Speaking at the New York premiere, he said it was about "the perils of tribalism." But it's not. It’s about cats.

This is all to say that, underneath all that digital fur technology that caused a stir when the first trailer was released, the movie Cats remains Cats. Hooper essentially just put Andrew Lloyd Webber’s show on screen. You will leave the movie with the same questions you would have had if you had seen its source material: Am I high? What did I just watch? Was it supposed to be strangely erotic? What exactly is a jellicle cat? Why is naming cats so complicated? These are eternal queries.

Hooper and co-writer Lee Hall attempt to add some narrative structure to Webber’s plotless adaptation of T.S. Eliot’s poems. The audience is introduced to the kitty underworld through Victoria (played by ballet dancer Francesca Hayward), who is carelessly discarded on the streets. She is inducted into the cult of the Jellicles through song, where the likes of Munkustrap (ballet dancer Robbie Fairchild) explain that she has arrived on the night of the Jellicle Ball, an auspicious evening during which one chosen cat will ascend to the Heaviside Layer, a.k.a. cat heaven, at the blessing of Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench, a legend and a good sport). The mechanics of this place  -- is this a movie about assisted suicide? -- remain as confusing as ever, but it's best not to dwell on it too much and just focus on the humanoid felines.

cats
Universal Pictures

The cat contenders go about introducing themselves over a series of ditties that span the length of the entire movie. This is pure Cats. What’s not pure Cats is the expansion of villainous Macavity (Idris Elba), who can make fellow cats vanish into thin air. He abducts his competition and places them on a barge (!) in the middle of the Thames (!), where his associate named Growltiger (!), played by Ray Winstone (!), keeps them prisoner. This way, Macavity can eliminate anyone who could possibly go to the Heaviside Layer in his place. The narrative tension this adds to the proceedings is nil to none.

This is because the success of Cats, of course, is not dependent on silly things like "dialogue" and "plot." It's contingent on how well the performers and creative team can pull off the musical numbers. Here, they range from fully deranged to horribly dull. Hooper, known for his askew angles and tight close-ups, does not seem to have a sense of what makes dance compelling on screen. What should be an exhilarating chance to show off the physical talents of his cast, the mid-show ballet "The Jellicle Ball," becomes a series of quick cuts that obscure the choreography by Hamilton's Andy Blankenbuehler. Skimbleshanks (Steven McRae) -- never thought of as one of the standout cats -- gets the most exuberant sequence, featuring nimble tap dancing that only sometimes makes you stop to think, Wait, do cats wears shoes? After that you might briefly ponder how strange it is that these creatures have human feet and hands, but furry bodies.

The bit that is guaranteed to produce the most nightmares belongs to Rebel Wilson's Jennyanydots, the subject of "The Old Gumbie Cat." It features both mice with the faces of human children and a chorus line of dancing cockroaches, who, yes, also have human faces. To make you further question the nature of your new reality, at one point Wilson unzips her cat skin to reveal a sparkly outfit over... another layer of cat skin. (Which cats wear clothing is another matter entirely. Some seem to wear coats of fur, raising a number of other ethical concerns.)

cats
Universal Pictures

Of course, Hooper has assembled an all-star cast to turn into what are essentially mid-transition Animorphs, all of whom are hampered by the weirdness of the endeavor. Ian McKellen, as Gus the Theatre Cat, fares the best, really leaning into the absurdist comedy when he laps out of a bowl or issues a broken "meow." Despite her online presence as the reigning cat lady of pop, Taylor Swift doesn't even really try to affect any cat-like mannerisms. She does however attempt a British accent as she coos "Macavity: The Mystery Cat." (The new song that she co-authored with Webber, "Beautiful Ghosts," halts any momentum the film had going for it.) As Grizabella the Glamour Cat, Jennifer Hudson doesn't do much, but does nail the 11 o'clock number, "Memory." If there's one truism in all of musical theater, it's that, no matter what you think of Cats, the key change in "Memory" still slaps.

When Cats was over I felt mildly intoxicated. (I had only had one glass of wine prior. Universal did however seem to be giving critics alcohol at many screenings.) My eyes readjusted to seeing people with people faces instead of cats with people faces. Stepping into the light, I felt like Grizabella coming out of the shadows. I had just been through hell, but emerged contented. I'd love to say I had some sort of profound experience, but, really, I just watched Cats

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.