A brilliant musical can only be cheapened by a surfeit of screen effects and novelty casting. But Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats is a mediocre musical, brilliantly packaged, and it benefits nicely from those cinematic bonuses. A diverting if bizarre family entertainment, it should have a respectable Christmas opening with a, um, long tail.
Early trailers put off viewers with what looked to be hopelessly awkward human-feline CGI hybrids. One critic said it looked scarier than It, Chapter Two.
Fear not. These gentle, generally charming creatures won’t give your child nightmares. “Digital fur technology” sounds like something you’d see advertised on a late-night furry/plushie fetish cable program, and it had director Tom Hooper tweaking and fretting edits until hours before the film’s premiere. The result is cute enough — his approach is fundamentally that of a child’s dress-up, make-believe idyll — although baffling from a logical standpoint.
Why worry over facial fur when the rest of the costuming amounts to high-level dance-theater or mascot outfits and when the cat-to-set proportions are inconsistent? As Jia Tolentino noted in an instructive New Yorker piece, anatomical questions abound. And Rebel Wilson’s Jennanydots sheds her cat outfit entirely to reveal human clothes beneath, which suspends the rickety suspension of disbelief even further.
But while adults agonize over such matters, I don’t think children will. And looking for logic in Cats has always been a fruitless enterprise. From the start, it was an overblown whim scored to T.S. Eliot’s capricious lines that have interestingly bigoted origins. “Eliot’s fondness for doggerel and light verse, in particular, was intertwined with a racist notion of blackness as a gateway to cultural disruption and linguistic play,” Tolentino writes, summing up insights from the literary critic Michael North.
I tried to forget about those racist roots, because after so many incarnations and adaptations of the original poems, the trail grows somewhat cold even for the most passionate social-justice warrior, or worrier. But I couldn’t quite, because by far the best thing about this production is its star, Francesca Hayward in the beefed-up role of the cast-off ingenue cat Victoria, whose dancing and reactive facial expressions are the narrative’s emotional touchstones. Need the producers have made the lovely caramel-hued features of this half-Kenyan Royal Ballet principal “pure” white? Just asking.
I was disappointed too that, given a fat movie budget, the producers didn’t opt for a fuller orchestration of the show’s notoriously thin synth-heavy musical score.
But all that aside, to lively choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler (Hamilton), Hayward’s airy steps, delicate posture, presence in the moment, and even her sweet, brittle singing of “Beautiful Ghosts” — a ballad with music by Webber and lyrics by Taylor Swift that was added to the show for this film version — are a delight. “Movie magic” and the rigors of “cat school” are no match for dance and stage training from childhood.
The more fully realized Victoria is a wise story-telling strategy in that she ushers us into the downtown London cats’ universe, which in Hooper’s and Lee Hall’s screenplay, and with Eve Stewart’s enticing production design, is expanded beyond the circumscribed alley of the stage version to include a derelict Egyptian Theatre, neighboring apartments, train tracks, a milk bar, and other locales. The script is also clever in that it sets up the empathetic vibrations among Hayward, Jennifer Hudson as the once-glamorous, now forlorn Grizabella, and Judi Densch as Old Deuteronomy in a triangle of deep understanding that gives the story its heart.
Hudson takes an intimate, pitiful strategy toward her role and the show’s torch song, “Memory,” which she mines for raw lyricism rather than full-out belting even in its most forceful reprise. This is truer to Grizabella’s character than the usual stage climax’s shake-the-rafters approach, and it takes intelligent advantage of the film medium, much as Anne Hathaway’s Fantine had in her signature moments in Hooper’s film version of Les Misérables. (Some viewers cringed at that, but I found it apt.) Grizabella’s tears and scars are the superb work of Uxue Laguardia’s makeup team, though the prominent nose running seemed a little much. Consider her for ascension to the Heaviside Layer by all means, but give her some tissues along the way, won’t you?
Densch as a female Deuteronomy is also inspired casting. She was supposed to be in the original stage version of Cats in the dual roles of Grizabella and Jennyanydots until she snapped her achilles tendon weeks before the premiere. Her commanding presence, whether she is M in the James Bond franchise, Queen Victoria, or queen of the kitties, continues to shine into her regal eighties. And her appreciative gaze toward Ian McKellen as Gus the Theatre Cat feels natural — two seasoned pros who can still do more with a directed eye-dart than younger hams can with a five-minute tantrum. The tradeoff is that McKellen’s Gus can’t segue into Gus’s vigorous-in-memory Vaudeville routine the way the character does on stage, but the casting is worth it all the same.
Swift, who enters the picture shaking golden catnip from a descending moon sliver, decadent disco style, has flat-out sexy fun with the role of Bombalurina, a feisty gangster’s moll to Idris Elba’s fearsome Macavity. That villain is rendered here as a gleaming-eyed demon, with touches of Wicked Witch and Captain Hook stirred in for kicks.
James Corden’s Bustopher Jones is a glamorous glutton oozing joie de vivre as he leads the pack through bountifully depicted garbage and sewers. Rebel Wilson gives Jennyanydots, the lazy old Gumbie Cat, great thigh-scratching prat-falling zest. And Jason Derulo is a smooth Rum Tum Tugger, a twitchy, indecisive idol who hasn’t the attention span to appreciate his adoring fans. Also noteworthy: Danny Collins and Naoimh Morgan as the spryly felonious Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer, Laurie Davidson as a winningly wide-eyed and earnest Mr. Mistoffelees the magician, and Steven McRae, another Royal Ballet principal, who leaps and taps his way onto the tracks as the fiery Skimbleshanks, the Railway Cat.
Adorable if mildly creepy mouse children (although where are the adult mice?) and a surreal chorus line of cockroaches are among the psychedelic creations of a CGI tech army.
But still, for all the digital treats and star cameos, my chief memory from this iteration of Cats will forever be the grace and compassionate beauty of Francesca Hayward.