‘Cats’ Simply May Be Too Peculiar of a Stage Musical to Adapt for the Big Screen
By screenwriter Lee Hall’s own admittance, “Cats,” is built off a structure and not a story; but unlike a stage musical, a cinematic narrative needs a little bit more than that to satisfy. Director Tom Hooper’s adaptation of the famous (or infamous, depending on who you ask) musical production from the mind of Andrew Lloyd Webber, is an ongoing barrage of ghoulishly grand style that never gives the audience’s eyes or ears a rest. Magic and depravity are to be found around every corner of the back alley’s outside of the Egyptian Theater, but little else, other than scraps.
The original musical is based on T. S. Eliot’s 1939 poetry collection, “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” telling the tale of a tribe of “Jellicle cats.” One special night per year, their matriarch Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) makes the “Jellicle choice,” choosing one cat to be blessed with a new life (the film never really makes clear how the nine lives superstition fits into this, though). But a sinister schemer, Macavity (Idris Elba) plans to eliminate all other possible feline candidates, in order to ensure that he will be the cat their elder chooses.
The cast of sometimes creepily vibrant, furry characters we meet along the way include the overweight scavenger, Bustopher Jones (James Corden), semi-spoiled kitchen dweller, Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson), the flirtatious Bombalurina (Taylor Swift) an eager young magician, Mr. Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson), Gus the legendary theatre cat (Ian McKellen), and abandoned/ostracized Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson). We meet them all through the eyes of Victoria (Francesca Hayward), a newcomer to the alley dropped into their territory in the opening sequence.
The cats crawl and hiss in a circle, performing some sort of nocturnal birthing ritual, before ripping the bag open, introducing Victoria to a new world, one where cats go to the milk bar and listen to the jukebox. Before you know it, dozens of cats are slinking and scampering around. The barrage of colorful flavor and explosions of dance never let up, and it gets draining fast. There’s basically no dialog and little room to breathe throughout the film; it’s just rhythmic description with close to zero emotional weight behind the exposition, as the bursts of bonkers musical numbers grows so tedious one almost turns numb to it until the film’s grand finale, and it doesn’t help that none of the songs are especially memorable. Although, there is a point around the halfway mark of the movie where sensations start to swell before being quickly deflated.
Getting a grasp on the scale of this world sort of requires an adjustment period; at first one is not quite sure if we’re looking at life-sized felines, or anthropomorphized animals retaining a relatively normal size. The nighttime early exterior locations also make it difficult to make heads or tails of it, but by the time Rebel Wilson’s musical number comes around and she dances atop the kitchen counter next to a loaf of bread, it appears we’re being given a window into the secret life of the cuddly little creatures we know and love. Frankly, it really doesn’t translate to the screen well with the CGI enhanced costumes and make-up work. The physical juxtaposition of the expressively liberated late-night prowlers’ bodies against the various settings is quite wonky in a few of the numbers. It plays as too peculiar to feel dignified in cinematic form, coming off goofy, glammy and glib, not to mention slightly unnerving.
Perhaps those how enjoy the stage version will have a jolly time singing along, but as a movie adaption “Cats” can come off as an old-school musical that’s trying too hard, with its hip performance talent, to cater its content for a new audience. It’s got flair and might hit whatever over-the-top zest its going for, but has an exhausting pace, letting nothing resonate on an emotional level. It strings together a series of isolated dance choreographies in to a ball of audio/visual chaos. There may be shadows on the wall to gawk at and supernatural kidnappings (catnappings) to keep you enticed, but from a storytelling point of view, Tom Hooper’s “Cats” doesn’t leave you much to cling to.
“Cats,” opens Dec. 20 in theaters nationwide.