NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE T hey tell us Cats played on Broadway for 18 years, but they never tell us why. People were really into leg warmers back then? There was nothing on TV except T. J. Hooker? The concept known as “story” had not yet been invented? It’s baffling.
Cats took far too long to make its way to the big screen, and today it feels like a splashy re-launch of the hottest Atari video game of 1982. Taylor Swift, James Corden, Idris Elba, Rebel Wilson, et al each takes a turn doing a gaudy production number in feline guise, with almost nothing to connect one number to the next except the thinnest filament of a story, which is the promise that somebody will be tapped to ascend to the “Heaviside layer” (strange name for heaven), and receive a new life. The lyrics come to us from the Anglo-Catholic T. S. Eliot, who seems to be mocking his own faith here. Maybe the show is meant to be kindergarten Christianity, but it comes across as the liturgy of Liberace.
Through the eyes of a new arrival in a cat-infested London alley, Victoria (Francesca Hayward), we learn that all of the others are a member of a cult of theater-nerd felines, the “Jellicle cats.” Victoria spends the entire movie with a single insipid “tell me more” expression affixed to her face as each cat introduces itself with one unbearable production number after another, broken up by tiny snippets of dialogue containing far worse jokes than you can possibly imagine. (“Look what the cat dragged in,” etc.) The look of the actors is so strange you can’t get over it: It’s the Uncanny Alley. The actors have tails and fur, but also hands. The lady cats have bosoms. Millions in digital effects have yielded the strangest species mashup since Manimal.
Sets suggest London as redesigned for a Fancy Feast commercial, with signs above Piccadilly touting “Pipurr-Heidsieck” champagne. (Will kids even get this pun?) The numbers jump around madly in space and time: Now cockroaches are dancing in Busby Berkeley geometric formation; now there’s a tapdancing break on the railways; now there are cats walking the plank in a boat on the Thames. Are they pirate cats? What the hell does “Jellicle” mean? Will the Spare Tire of God rise to the heavens at the end, as it did on Broadway? (No: more of a chandelier attached to a hot-air balloon.)
The goal is for each song to be a showstopper, but given that no story ever sets things in motion in the first place, what Cats desperately needs is a showstarter. On stage, with its long tradition of revues, plotlessness can be disguised by razzle-dazzle; on screen, though, people are going to be bored. I love Andrew Lloyd Webber (though these are not his finest compositions), and I have as much tolerance for Broadway artifice as any straight man, but even so: I felt nothing but stupefaction. I put Cats in the same category of disaster-musical as Paint Your Wagon and The Wiz, movies that are exceedingly difficult to watch all the way through.
The director Tom Hooper, whose previous films include The King’s Speech and Les Misérables, has loved Cats since he was eight years old, but things have changed a bit since then. The show hasn’t — not nearly enough. The opening synthesizer chords don’t sound like a stylized homage to the era (as in, say, the score to Stranger Things); they simply sound like dusty relics of a cheesier era. The choreography (by Andy Blankenbuehler) is supposed to suggest “sexy ballet,” but comes closer to “third-best floor show in Vegas.” At least Judi Dench doesn’t suggest the Eighties. No, she suggests the Thirties; she looks like the Cowardly Lion. Dench’s character is the wise old lawgiver, Old Deuteronomy, whose role it is to choose the cat who will ascend to the Heaviside Layer after hearing these portentously “climactic,” i.e. deeply silly, words: “You. Are. The Jellicle Choice!” Since feeble, mangy Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson) is being ostracized by the other cats and is the most pathetic of the lot, it seems likely that she’ll be the pick, at least if she nails “Memory,” the greatest eleven o’clock number delivered on Broadway for many years. Alas for Cats, by eleven o’clock the theaters will be practically empty because ticket-holders will be back home filing human-rights complaints with Amnesty International. Those few who are still around at the end will note that in belting out the song, Hudson looks constipated instead of tragic. After 37 years of waiting for this number to make it to the screen, it’s a bit of a letdown.
Looking straight into the camera at the end, Dench delivers a strange homily that looks like a P.S.A. “Kids, don’t do as many drugs as we all did in the Seventies” would have been a helpful message, but instead she serves up more crazed cat drivel. “A cat is not a dog,” Dench lectures us. I beg to differ.
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