From the first teaser trailers, the internet has been sinking its claws into Cats. Critics slammed the film as disturbing, confusing and bizarre, yet those descriptors evoke the very essence of the musical.
Directed by Tom Hooper, Cats (2019) is an adaptation of the acclaimed Andrew Lloyd Webber musical that draws on the poetry of T.S. Eliot. Cats boasts both Olivier and Tony Awards for Best Musical, a certified platinum (and Grammy winning) cast album and is amongst the longest-running West End and Broadway musicals. Despite the original’s commercial success, the recent film’s ‘cat-astrophic’ reviews come as no shock: the stage show is hugely divisive amongst musical theatre fans. Those of you who are up-to-date with RAZZ’s print editions know Cats is my guiltiest pleasure, so, ignoring everyone’s scepticism (including my own fears – nothing blasting the 1981 album couldn’t fix!), I went opening day hoping to bask in its glory.
And you know what? I wasn’t disappointed.
Yes, I am fully aware that the CGI often left much to be desired. However, the fur and cat-human combination didn’t horrify me. The design of the characters captured the same uncanny energy as the costumes of the stage show; the cats are supposed to look strange and unsettle you. Keeping the same outfits and makeup as the show would have looked more out of place, and the costumes combined with CGI sometimes worked well – kudos to Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo), as the iconic mane was mostly preserved in the new form. Truthfully, I almost erupted about the disappearance of Skimbleshanks’ legendary waistcoat, but I actually love the letterbox red trousers, so we’ll let it slide. At the start, the movement with the CGI did seem odd, which was a shame as it prevented ‘Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats’ from popping off to the extent it deserves. As it progressed, any weird CGI became less noticeable; instead, I was carried away with the film, not even noticing the cameo from Judi Dench’s human hand. If you’re searching for the visual flaws, you’ll find them, but if you head in hoping to enjoy it, they don’t overshadow the main event.
Cats is notorious for its loose interpretation of plot. A bunch of cats introduce themselves before choosing one Jellicle cat to ascend to the Heaviside Layer and be reborn into a new life. Most people struggle with the vague storyline, so the film’s decision to cut several baffling parts was for the best – if you think the movie makes little sense as it is, you stood no chance if they’d kept in ‘The Battle of the Pekes and the Pollicles’. Framing the plot around, and expanding the roles of, Victoria (Francesca Hayward) and Macavity (Idris Elba) gives the audience a much easier thread to follow through the Jellicle world. As far as giving Cats a clearer plot goes, the writers did well to tie it together while still giving time for most numbers.
Here’s the thing about Cats as a musical: nobody sees it for the plot. It’s all about the dancing. That’s why casting a principal for the Royal Ballet in the central role was genius – her dancing is impeccable, and I’m eternally thankful the CGI didn’t hide her stunning lines. Andy Blankenbuehler, the choreographer behind Hamilton, mixing his choreography with that of Gillian Lynne’s original was spectacular. The movements throughout are amazingly reminiscent of the show, but those unfamiliar with its ballet-like qualities may struggle to understand certain aspects. This was reflected, for example through some claims that the film is a “horny romp”; these are people acting like cats, of course things will be misconstrued and look somewhat out of place when the human body adopts feline characteristics. Admittedly, Rum Tum Tugger’s song fulfils the claims (with a name like that, are you really surprised?!), yet he is significantly toned down from the original. If anything, I thought Derulo should have pushed his charisma further.
It’s easy to see why Cats is so influential to dancers, and the movie continued this despite its celebrity-filled cast. I’m pleased to say that one of my all-time favourite cats, Skimbleshanks (Steven McRae), is absolutely phenomenal. Switching his number to tap dance made it the best in the entire film (and that’s not just my bias): McRae’s feet are nothing short of astonishing purr-fection. Also a Royal Ballet principal, he shows that one of the best casting decisions made in this adaptation was to bring in accomplished, talented dancers, with Les Twins, Zizi Strallen, and West End ensemble members bringing the movement to life on screen.
Surprisingly, Taylor Swift shines as Bombalurina. Her energy throughout her brief screen time is fantastic, cementing her status as a brilliant performer. She brings the right amount of playfulness to the role, and you could tell she was having the time of her life. Swift manages to detract attention from Elba’s questionable (and mercifully short) singing. While Elba’s vocal talents leave much to be desired, I liked Macavity’s expanded and continued antagonism, and thought that he did well with what he had.
Other notable performances include: Laurie Davidson as Mister Mistoffelees, whose character differs from the original but works magnificently (even singing his own song for once!); Munkustrap (Robbie Fairchild), who is an unsung hero that really carries the film; Ian McKellen as Gus the Theatre Cat is the definition of casting perfection; and, of course, Jennifer Hudson as Grizabella. Her rendition of ‘Memory’ is flawless, her vocal power on “touch me, it’s so easy to leave me” shoots straight to the heart. Although I appreciate ‘Beautiful Ghosts’, the new addition by Webber and Swift, as it makes sense for Victoria to have a song, its downside is that it seemingly diminishes the impact of the first version of ‘Memory’, thus side-lining Grizabella.
I am not saying that Cats, as a whole, is without its flaws. While James Corden and Rebel Wilson are not as cringe-worthy as I’d feared, some parts really are. ‘The Old Gumbie Cat’ is the most terrifying section of the entire film, where Jennyanydots (Wilson) unzips her skin to reveal a showgirl costume and later eats the tap dancing cockroaches… Sometimes it’s better to just bleach it from your brain and move on! There were plenty of odd choices, for example: Macavity looks naked at one point, Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) wears a fur coat (I know it’s in the show, but it’s still creepy), and Grizabella’s runny nose. Personally, the ending isn’t my favourite and it does raise concerns about just how big those cats are, but who am I to decline more screen time for Skimbleshanks and his beautiful red trousers?
Overall, if you enjoy the musical then, like me, you’ll love the movie (it’s actually a decent adaptation of the show). If you hate the musical then, shockingly, this isn’t one for you. Cats is a film that can’t be scrutinised fully without considering its adaptive source material: if the stage show is weird as hell, was anything less truly expected of the film?
– Katie Burdon