The play Cats is a strange and mysterious thing. Lacking a typical narrative, the story unfolds as each cat introduces itself in song and details of a larger undertaking are revealed upon each new tune. By and large, though, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s play, inspired by the poems of T.S. Elliot, is a nonsensical piece of work that requires a great deal of imagination and patience to enjoy. That or a love of the feline species. In adapting the stage play for theaters, director Tom Hooper (Les Misérables) worked with Lee Hall (Rocketman/Billy Elliot) in creating something that’s very much in the spirit of the original play, but makes the narrative more concrete. Most impressive, is that Hooper and his creative team create a visual spectacle as each of the actors and dancers are transformed into what was only before perceived within their minds. It’s at once startling and thrilling as the performers both visual and physically make manifest that which Broadway dreams. With this, Hooper’s Cats offers a gateway for those without access to Broadway or smaller stages to get a taste of the spectacle the theater provides.
One night each year, a special group of cats gathers together so that Old Deuteronomy (Madame Judi Dench) will pick one of them to ascend to the Heaviside Layer. As new arrival Victoria (Francesca Hayward) is led through each candidate’s performance, she also learns of the rising threat of Macavity (Idris Elba), a nasty cat with an eye on the prize. With each delightful new element that is introduced, a darkness rises to meet it, and only a kind soul can displace the danger.
After the first images of Hooper’s Cats hit the internet, a strange wave of horror soon followed. Evidently, the costume design was received, by many, as something coming from a place of nightmares. What Hooper’s team devised, however, while not totally perfect, does wonderfully translate what stage actors envision for themselves when taking on the roles. As previously mentioned, their costumes are, in essence, the leotard taken a step further so that the performers look less like they’re in make-up and more like they’ve taken a Polyjuice potion. Yes, that’s more likely to happen in Cursed Child, but the point remains: the combination of physical material and computer-generated materials create costumes that assist the audience in immersing themselves more fully. This especially works due to a heavy reliance on sets designed and built to create an altered perspective, further pushing the notion that these are not performers on a stage, but cats running through alleys, stores, and adjacent homes. The best of the design work can be seen in the style of both Dench’s Old Deut, which utilizes a fur coat overtop a matching CG costume, as well as Hayward’s Francesca, which is a top-to-bottom sleek one-piece. Even Laurie Davidson’s Mr. Mistoffelees doesn’t look ridiculous as there’s a lovely blending of both the real and engineered materials. Where things do look odd is, sadly, with Elba’s Macavity. Either due to the coloring of his fur or the gleam which frequently shines off of it, his design frequently looks out of place against his facial presentation, resulting in a disconcerting feeling as the audience is yanked out of the otherwise consistent fictional world. In regard to the set design, the use of a shifted perspective almost consistently maintains the illusion of Cats, except in the musical number “Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer”. Here, as Victoria plays in a house with two other cats, the computer-generated portions of the set stand out against the physical, weakening the illusion Hooper and his team worked so hard to create.
What will stand out most notably to fans of Cats and less-so to newbies, such as this reviewer, is how Hooper and Lee adjusted the film for a different audience. In this iteration, Macavity is given a larger, even physical, presence, whereas the play keeps him in the shadows. Similarly, there are no lines of spoken dialogue in the play, yet there are a handful of moments here where it is utilized. The dialogue is a mix of jokes, largely coming from Rebel Wilson and James Corden, in line with both their characters and personal comedic sensibilities, which serves to create a more solid narrative within the film. Again, the play itself doesn’t really have a story, merely a series of songs interconnected only by their subject — cats — and location. Hooper and Hall, however, create something that makes more sense to a theater audience who expect a more traditional narrative. These changes don’t appear to detract at all from the original content of the film, and, in the end, it’s the story that matters (no matter how loose a story it has) and that they have retained in full. Hooper’s Cats will most likely find its benefactors in those who can’t make it to Broadway, those who want so desperately to hear the music and see performances which acknowledge a variety of styles and shapes without derision, to take in the boldness, strength, and beauty of the human form that dance, especially, captures and conveys. Truly, the choreography from Andy Blankenbuehler (Hamilton, In the Heights) is an absolute marvel, seamlessly shifting from ballet to tap to anything else informing the body to move.
Now, it’s worth noting that the screening of Cats took place with an audience which didn’t seem altogether interested in a Broadway show. Rather than having the usual ebbs and flows of a narrative, Cats transitions from one song into another without stopping and the audience just felt compelled to chatter and joke through most of it. So when I say that the story isn’t compelling enough to hold attention, keep in mind of the context. Sadly, despite a great attempt to stay locked into the story, there was little about it at the start that pulled me in and the constant distractions made every attempt exponentially difficult. Coming to the film without experience beyond the song “Memory” (sung wonderfully by Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls) as Grizabella), I was as open a book as possible to take in Hooper’s creation. The trick is, without a strong hook, the narrative, even in its tighter design and execution, never grabs hold. Again, the context is important as the audience never stayed quiet long enough for any of the performances to pull this reviewer, or even themselves, in too deeply.
This is, by and large, the most total shame because the performances by the cast are only the kind you’ll see on Broadway. Sure, Taylor Swift will go on tour, Rebel Wilson and James Corden have engaged in dance numbers before, and musician Jason Derulo, as skamp Rum Tum Tugger, can be found dancing online, but the rest of the cast? This might be the only opportunity to see Hayward, Elba, Davidson, Robbie Fairchild, Noaimh Morgan, Danny Collins, and Steven McRae in action in such an accessible manner. Their individual performances aren’t just tied to the dance numbers, but in the way they maintain the feline illusion. It’s jaw-droppingly amazing and incredible detailed. Their movements are nimble, their elegance delicate, and their relative ferocity startling. Newcomer Hayward, whose perspective guides the bulk of Cats, is phenomenal, gracefully shifting her performance to match that of the scene leader, i.e. the Heaviside Layer Contender. It shows off the incredible talent that she possesses as a dancer, as well as a unique capacity to convey a variety of emotions underneath make-up, a physical costume, and CG. Truly, if the greatest strength of Cats is the way Hooper creates the illusion of the show, the next is that of the performers who maintain it with grace and style.
To all the people that heard that director Tom Hooper put his film to bed hours before the premiere and cackled, to all the people that saw the costumes and took glee in making jokes, there’s much to suspect that it’s going to be this cat with the canary when all is said and done. It may not be the biggest box office draw, but it’s got mileage potential due to its built-in fan base. Theater fans, especially, are going to run to cinemas to catch this spectacle on the big screen, while budding thespians are going to scribble notes on the possibilities Hooper’s Cats sets before them, and that’s what Cats is about in many ways, looking to the possibilities and imagining the chance to better ourselves. That, perhaps, it’s not just a story about silly-named cats who hold a strange belief in reincarnation via ritual sacrifice, but about how we all dream of something bigger than ourselves and the opportunity to start again when we fall. We can’t all rely on nine lives. Sometimes, we have to make the most of our single one.
In theaters December 20th, 2019.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.