With the release of Tom Hooper’s Cats movie adaptation, the public has a new opportunity to do what theater snobs and comedy writers have never stopped doing over the past 40 years: make fun of Cats. Adapted by Andrew Lloyd Webber from the poems of T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, the stage musical became an unexpected sensation on Broadway and around the globe despite—or perhaps because of—its odd premise, which involves a group of cats called Jellicles gathering in London to introduce themselves before deciding which of them will be allowed to travel up to the Heaviside layer and be reborn into a new life. That flimsy plot, coupled with the silliness of grown men and women writhing around in leotards meowling and licking themselves, has opened it up to no end of mockery.
I suspect that Hooper’s version of Cats will be met with the same amount of gleeful bafflement as the stage show, if the (overblown) horror over the movie’s “digital fur technology” when the trailer was released in July is any indication.* Hooper responded to the criticism by dialing back the fur so the characters look more human, and the movie is better off for it, though still a little unsettling. (Just when you think you’ve reasonably settled into the uncanny valley, Idris Elba’s coat comes off and you’re sucked even deeper into a void of horny confusion.) The hoopla over the trailer put Hooper in an awkward position, because if Cats is not completely weird, can it rightfully still be called Cats? It’s not my favorite musical by a long shot, nor is it even Lloyd Webber’s best. But Cats’ uncoolness, its willingness to be silly and self-serious and spectacular at the expense of taste, is its greatest strength, and Hooper’s version understands this.
That’s not to say that he treats the original as a sacred text. His and co-writer Lee Hall’s screenplay (though both Lloyd Webber and the author of “The Waste Land” share credits) responds to the most common complaint about Cats—its supposed lack of plot—by padding it. Their version follows kitten Victoria (ballet dancer Francesca Hayward), who in the opening scenes is abandoned in a junkyard by a woman we only see from the ankles down. (Though the scale of the city suggests that humans do also live there, that’s the most of them that ever appears on camera.) There Victoria learns about the Jellicle ball from Munkustrap (fellow ballet dancer Robbie Fairchild) and other cats, though she doesn’t yet know what a Jellicle is or whether she is one. The competition this year has a saboteur: Macavity (Elba), who uses magic to kidnap all the other contestants so that wise Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) has no choice but to choose him.
Though Cats is traditionally a sung-through musical, Hooper, perhaps haunted by criticism of the relentless live singing in his adaptation of Les Misérables, sprinkles in some spoken interludes to break up the songs, mostly expository dialogue and uninspired cat (and in the case of James Corden’s character, fat cat) jokes. Alas, there are some wounds that no amount of laughter can heal: While theater pros like Fairchild pull off the live singing just fine, I cannot say the same for some of the more famous faces in the cast, such as Rebel Wilson and Jason Derulo, whose back-to-back songs early on constitute the movie’s roughest stretch. Fortunately, it recovers, and the songs that follow—and the dancing from the professionally trained portion of the cast—are giddy and gorgeous, particularly “Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat,” which sees them tap-dancing along a railroad track, and “Mr. Mistoffelees,” which Hooper reimagines to give the number more emotional heft. His signature close-up, low-angle shots are ideal for Jennifer Hudson’s rendition of “Memory” (which is about as powerful as you’d expect from that combination of singer and song) and Victoria singing the new, Taylor Swift–penned response song, “Beautiful Ghosts,” sung by Hayward (which is competent and sweet, if forgettable).
Die-hard fans of Cats will probably walk away with plenty of quibbles—like the choice to minimize the role of Rum Tum Tugger (Derulo), the contrarian cat, whose song is infuriatingly interrupted by dialogue despite being one of the best in the musical—while newcomers hoping to finally understand what all the Cats fuss is all about will probably walk away with more questions than answers. These questions will include Why do some cats have magic and others don’t? and Who built this human-size bar that seems to serve only milk? and How has an hour gone by without an appearance from Taylor Swift? and Why on earth does this movie exist? When Swift does finally show up as sultry Bombalurina, it’s with the confidence that only a true cat lover can embody—but it’s 80-year-old Ian McKellen who can best answer that last question, having the most fun of anyone as Gus the Theater Cat, lapping out of saucers and rubbing up against corners like the true thespian he is. And really, for all its flaws, what more could you possibly ask for from Cats?
Correction, Dec. 18, 2019: This post originally misstated that the Cats trailer was released in October. It was released in July.