Review: ‘Cats’ (overcomplicating simplicity)

More is less, but sure — let’s go all in.

In the back alleys of yesteryear’s West End theater district, a recently abandoned cat named Victoria (Francesca Hayward) finds herself in a big unknown world full of wonder, but also of strangers and dangers. She meets the Jellicles, a tribe of cats preparing for their annual ball held that very night, when one among them is deemed worthy by Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) to begin a new life of their choice. While several cats campaign to be chosen and perform as others watch to cheer them on, a too-cool cat named Macavity (Idris Elba) lurks in the shadows with a plan to claim the prize for himself… by removing his competition.

Fair warning: this is one of those musicals where damn near everything is sung, so those who can’t keep up with the rapid-fire lyrics and their meanings are going to get lost pretty quick in the self-contained individual stories.

Based upon the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical based upon an interpretation of the T.S. Eliot poem from “Old Possum’s Books of Practical Cats,” director Tom Hooper seems intent on removing the accepted theater aspects of play that opened in the early 1980s on both Broadway and the West End. While Steven Spielberg’s sidelined animated attempt with actual cats merely acting human never got off the ground, Hooper’s vision required the technology to digitally transform human actors into “humanoid felines” rather than go with the stage-traditional “makeup and Lycra.” The first trailer infamously mirrored an fantasy alien landscape straight out of an old Heavy Metal magazine, including irradiated street animals who rose up to replace mankind and dance in celebration. This begs the question: other than the director and furry fetishists, who else was demanding this?

Other than looking like a remake of The Wizard of Oz as a 1980s interpretive-dance video on MTV where all the characters have been replaced by human-feline hybrids, the biggest crime this film version of Cats makes is akin to the film version of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: viewers may have no idea what’s going on unless they already know what’s going on. In regards to the original play and the music, fans may enjoy this interpretation… if they can accept photo-realistic character interpretations, actual magic in place of metaphor, and a central plot change that highlights villainy over a story of individual worthiness. If not, at least they can sing along with the songs that made the final cut, right?

Newcomer/ballerina Francesca Hayward’s Victoria has a beefier part than her stage counterpart, including a new song of her own called “Beautiful Ghosts” written by Taylor Swift and Lloyd Webber. It’s a seamless addition, unlike Macavity getting an upgrade from being a jerk to becoming full-on villain; think Dr. Facilier from Disney’s The Princess and the Frog… if he was a cat. Ian McKellen’s Gus The Theatre Cat lost a few tunes in a greatly reduced part. The actors bring their A games and the singing is fine (although the music mix inexcusably drowns out the Jennifer Hudson’s vocals during power ballad “Memories”) plus there are a few amusing ad-libs by James Corden as Bustopher Jones. Props should go out to the digital artists, however, for rendering cat-ear emotions just as expressive as their human faces — which, as you know, cats don’t have.

The nearly forty-year old production already has videos, soundtracks, and merch available to purchase for new and old fans alike, but all told, this Cats movie suffers from the same issue that crippled this year’s reboot of Charlie’s Angels: who is this for? Whether viewers take issue with the character appearances, warped hi-jinks, or just the mish-mash of a whole lot going on that doesn’t add up to anything as complex as suggested, why not go for broke with the fall-of-man post-apocalypse mutant felines angle? Heck, the modern re-imagining Romeo + Juliet worked out just fine for Baz Luhrmann. Mostly.

Addendum: with reports that a new, improved-effects version is being rushed to theaters already showing the film, one has to wonder: what exactly did Tom Hooper think was “still broken?” Enquiring minds want to know… or not.

Cats is rated PG for some jellicle rude and jellicle suggestive humor, plus jellicle conduct unbecoming to jellicle mice nor jellicle cockroaches.

Two skull recommendation out of four

💀 #grmdrpr #moviecryptdotcom #reapingwhathollywoodsows

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