I don’t like saying a movie is something made strictly for its fans. If a studio is going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a movie, it should be for everyone.
I’ll break that rule with the movie version of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical “Cats.” It’s only for people who enjoy the musical. If you’re new to it, I’d suggest seeing the live stage production that’s assuredly being performed somewhere right now.
Director Tom Hooper, who last helmed a Broadway classic with 2012’s “Les Misérables,” doesn’t just dip his toes into “Cats’” CGI-driven universe for the uninitiated, he jumps right in the madness.
“Cats” opens on the neon-lit, golden streets of London, where a white cat, Victoria (ballet dancer Francesca Hayward), is abandoned on the street and is befriended by a tribe of cats called the Jellicles. It happens that same night is also the annual celebration where they choose which cat will be worthy of going to the Heaviside Layer, where they’ll be reincarnated to an assumed better life.
From there, it goes from lazy, plus-sized cats like Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson), who has a trio of singing mice and a dancing chorus line of cockroaches to crooners like Rum Tum Tugger (singer Jason Derulo, having a ball screaming “Yeah!” and “Milk!). Within 15 minutes, if you’re not on board with these elements, including wildly varying CGI work, then leave immediately and see a different movie.
The joke about “Cats” is it’s two hours of cats introducing themselves so one can die and be taken to heaven. That couldn’t be more of an apt description of the movie. The plot is so bare bones that you wonder why even bother getting such a fantastic cast, most notably Judi Dench, Ian McKellen and Idris Elba, to have them look occasionally off-putting in a cat’s body with CGI fur.
The answer is that there’s no other musical this year and “Cats” has become such an institution, why not try and adapt one of the most successful productions in Broadway history?
To its credit, “Cats” embraces the absurdity that surrounds the entire movie. It takes some big swings that hit, like a big dance number of train tracks with the tune “Skimbleshanks: The Rail Way” and Idris Elba mugging as a magical cat who kidnaps other contenders for the Heaviside Layer.
It also has some major whiffs, like Taylor Swift’s ridiculous British accent as Bombalurina and the CGI work on the cats, which often ventures into the uncanny valley where some of the actors’ faces look bigger than the feline faces they’re given and the computer-enhanced dance movements sometimes come off as stiff.
Despite all the CGI work and big-budget effects, there’s a confined feeling to “Cats,” as it utilizes only a handful of sets, that helps maintain a live theater quality lost on a movie like “Les Misérables.” While it might be self-serious, there’s a looseness to the cast that makes the shortcomings a bit more palatable.
At its core, “Cats” is a weird, simple story with some great songs (that Jennifer Hudson nails with tears streaming down). And for fans of the musical, that might be enough to justify an almost two-hour movie.
— Andrew Gaug | St. Joe Live