Those familiar with the stage production of Cats might enjoy seeing the musical adapted to film. Director Tom Hooper (Les Misérables; The King’s Speech) tries admirably to bring the audience onto the stage and into the world of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical.
Rather than watch from afar, viewers follow the feline ensemble through the alleys and the trash, jumping up on countertops, prowling underneath sinks and making abandoned theaters their playground. Yet the make-up and furry tight-suits of the stage production make an unsettling transition to the screen with digitally rendered fur, whiskers and tails.
The sight of the cats is initially creepy with their human faces and, in the case of female characters, other bodily features. Some viewers might lose themselves in the performances and accept what they’re seeing. Others won’t get over how the cats look, which never quite seems right.
(If you fall asleep early on, you might be shocked when you wake up and see Judi Dench as Old Deuteronomy and believe you’re dreaming about a new The Wizard of Oz with Dench as the Cowardly Lion.)
Besides the troubling visual elements, the lack of a story is glaring. As you ponder what “jellicles” are, the narrative jumps from one musical number to another. Meet Victoria (Francesca Hayward). Hello, Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson), dancing with mice and cockroaches! Go to a milk bar with Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo)! Another fat cat, Bustopher Jones (James Corden), provides the most amusing performance. Old Gus the Theater Cat (Ian McKellen) slurps milk out of a bowl. There’s no chance to breathe.
What narrative there is builds to a climax. The villain, Macavity (Idris Elba), lurks in the shadows before getting a showcase with Bombalurina (Taylor Swift) in a song composed for the film. Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson) is the one character who gets anything resembling a story, punctuated by the show’s signature song, “Memory.”
The music of Cats might revive fond memories for anybody who has seen the show. Yet most everyone else will be left wondering what the hell they just watched. What works on stage doesn’t always work on screen.