It’s shocking how little there is to say about Tom Hooper’s highly (if not cautiously) anticipated screen adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Cats, a musical adaptation supremely loyal to its source material. That’s primarily due to two things: first, the fact that the film has received sufficient coverage since the trailer came out of the gates swinging, and second, the fact that the movie is nothing more than the highs and lows unveiled in those two minutes. Like most trailers for major studio landmarks these days, that one felt long and incredibly revealing, and it arrived early enough to give everyone with vocal cords or a keyboard ample time to share their thoughts on Hooper’s bewildering choices. But it turns out what we saw is all the film has to offer.
Most movies with exposing trailers still manage to provide a plethora of things to talk about when they hit the big screen. With Cats, however, the entertainment is so mild, there’s little to comment on that hasn’t already sent the internet into a frenzy of discussion. And those talking points are brief in the aftermath. The “digital fur technology” is off-putting at first, but within minutes you’ll forget it was ever abnormal or noteworthy. The concept of tiny cats with human body structures simply makes sense. It would be much more bizarre if they were human-sized cats walking on all fours. The feverishly discussed use of pop stars like Jason Derulo and Taylor Swift is brief (and forgettable in the case of Swift, whose glittery yet lackluster performance consists of intentionally disorienting and tricking her audience into a state of hypnotic attention, interestingly enough) — sharp marketing executed by the casting department, no doubt.
Cats begins abruptly, almost as if it recognizes that we’ve spent the past so many months in a culturally charged introduction of sorts, and it pulls no punches. The camera descends from the moonlit sky and the singing begins immediately. For those who haven’t seen the musical, the premise of Cats is simple yet odd. A large clan of cats that call themselves Jellicles dance around streets and alleys singing songs about their own lives in anticipation of the annual Jellicle Ball, where an elder cat named Old Deuteronomy (a soft, raspy Judi Dench) will choose one Jellicle cat to be sent to the Heaviside Layer to be reincarnated into a new Jellicle life. It’s not a plot-driven story, and when it tries to be, it sours into boredom (though boredom takes center stage in other modes, as well). It’s all about character exposition through song and dance.
If you’re unfamiliar with character names and stories, be warned that it might be a bit hard to follow. Monikers like Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson), Mr. Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson), Rumpleteazer (Naoimh Morgan), and Munkustrap (Robbie Fairchild) can be difficult to remember or make out in the first place. And it doesn’t help that they’re all covered in cat hair. Because of the fur CGI, characters’ faces don’t stick with you either. Every actor whose face you wouldn’t clearly recognize on the street will blend into one supporting role. But, among the ones already listed, there are plenty who are recognizable: Idris Elba, Ian McKellen, and James Corden, to name a few more.
The only unrecognizable actor you’ll leave thinking about is Francesca Hayward, who plays Victoria, the lead. Cats marks Hayward’s film debut, but at age 27, she’s already had a prodigious career as a ballet dancer. She joined the Royal Ballet in 2010 at age 18 and has since danced the lead in acclaimed productions of The Nutcracker, Manon, Romeo & Juliet, and Giselle. Make no mistake: it shows. Hayward is terrific as Victoria, a shy, curious, open cat, the only non-Jellicle cat in a Jellicle world. She’s tender, nimble, vivid, and electric when she needs to be, and she’ll be hard-pressed not to find a role after this.
Hayward is only bested by Jennifer Hudson as Grizabella, whose oscillating whispering and belting of “Memory” is so drastically better than anything else that happens in Cats, it’s as if the movie surrounding her exists on an inferior plane, or as if we’ve been in a cave watching the shadow puppet equivalent of vocal performance only to burst forth into daylight through Hudson’s pipes. For as inert and unfeeling as so much of Cats is, it’s stunning that she can waltz in and make you feel the emotional weight of the universe in a single moment, of which she gets two, thankfully. Unfortunately, Grizabella is only in 10-15 minutes of the film, which means most of the rest, save for some of Victoria’s spotlit moments, is a very middling effort.
It would be on the bad side of middling (if not altogether bad) if it weren’t for Andy Blankenbuehler’s explosive and expressive choreography. The man who also lent his choreographing efforts to 2019’s Fosse/Verdon is a stage legend of late, most notable for his Broadway work on Hamilton. Cats is a Broadway musical after all, so it makes sense that the most consistently impressive aspects of it are theatrical in nature. Blankenbuehler’s moves matched with Eve Stewart’s production design is a fruitful pairing, and while Stewart clearly did a wonderful job with what she was given, nothing can distract from the fact that the set looks like the background of a well-made video game, not a film. And even if it didn’t, theatrics can’t carry a film in its entirety, just like popstar pseudo-fan-casting can’t.
The appeal of Cats is captured succinctly by the viewers who sat on my left and right. To my left, a woman rocked on the edge of her seat, singing quietly and passionately along from start to finish, hands clasped close to her heart, tears likely running down her cheeks. To my right, a man snored for about 80 of the 110 minutes. Cats will delight its lovers, but it won’t be able to hold its non-zealot audience. So much of the film’s pleasantries hinge on viewers’ familiarity with it, and what dazzles in live musical productions simply doesn’t in film adaptations. Even Stewart’s colorful sets, Weber’s delightfully esoteric songs, and Blankenbuehler’s beaming choreography aren’t enough to sustain the interest of most who will go in knowing nothing. As cliché as it sounds, it must be that Weber’s brilliance is best experienced on the stage.