Published on December 18th, 2019 | by Michael Newman0
Cats the musical burst onto the scene back in 1981 with the London performance running for an astounding 21 years and the Broadway performance for over 18 years. To say that it has been a world-wide phenomenon is a bit of an understatement. The amazing costumes and visual spectacle have even been used in commercials. Yet, as much of a fan I am of Andrew Lloyd Weber and musicals in general, I had never been persuaded to see it on stage. Seeing my first glimpse of it at CinemaCon this year and experiencing Jennifer Hudson’s live performance on Memory had me more excited yet guarded at the same time.
The story of Cats takes place on the streets of London, for one night only. When a group known as the Jellical cats come together for one night a year to see who will be chosen by Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) to be reborn and ascend to the Heavenside layer. Each of the contenders must perform before Old Deuteronomy with the hopes that they will become the chosen one. This sets in motion a competition amongst the cats as to who is judged the worthiest, with a particularly nasty cat Macavity (Idris Elba) determined to due whatever it takes to ensure he is the chosen one in the end.
It’s hard not to be impressed with the star-studded cast that has been assembled for this modern retake on this pivotal classic. Featuring the amazing talents of Ian McKellen, Rebel Wilson, James Corden, Jason Derulo and introducing Francesa Hayward (a member of the Royal Ballet) the story of Cats is brought to life in a manner never seen before. Taylor Swift brings her amazing vocals, but more importantly a new song (Beautiful Ghosts), co-written by show creator Andrew Lloyd Weber. While already out of the running for an Academy Award (which is a terrible shame), it has already been nominated for a Golden Globe, which it most certainly deserves. Jennifer Hudson steals the show, as Grizabella, with her rendition of “Memory” being the absolute highlight.
Many, after seeing the initial previews were a bit…frightened, by the anthropomorphism of cats on screen. Unlike the musical which featured lavish costumes, CGI was used to produce a frighteningly realistic version of cat-like people for the big screen. Initially this was jarring for both myself and my wife, something that one might see only in their very worst nightmares, but it quickly fades to normalcy and any preconceived notions (or concerns) we had going into it disappeared (much like the cats themselves once daylight breaks). This becomes a good lesson in how we should not pre-judge a show prior to its attendance, and one must always go in with an open mind in order to truly appreciate what is brought before us. It would be worth noting also, that much of the visuals shown in the early preview releases have undergone some significant tweaking to soften much of the look and dial back on its nightmarish beginnings, just a bit.
For those fans of the musical, there is a lot to like. It’s obviously been shortened for its theatrical debut, and for those unfamiliar with the story, a quick read of wiki (or some other version) might be in order. Cats has always been a divisive show amongst its viewers, with those either loving it or hating it and the movie is likely to share in this as well. For purists, the inclusion of CGI in the creation of the cats might be enough to turn folks away. While the CGI itself pales in comparison to the lavish costumes of the original, it does add a bit more believability to the cats themselves. I’m not suggesting that they look better, by any means, only different and different isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
For those who dislike (or even hated) the musical, the movie likely won’t change their minds. At its core it still follows the main story, even if it is a bit disconnected due to its reduced run time. If you didn’t like the original score, that won’t change either.
If you have not seen the musical however, and ever had an interest in what all the fuss is about, then a cheaper (and shorter) trip to your local cinema to take in the film might just be in order. After seeing the film my wife and I are now trying to find out where it is playing on stage, or when it might make its way back to our local theaters. It’s a testament to how a well-done film can drive interest in musical theater (or vice-versa).
Cats had a lot to overcome initially to make fans out of it. The visuals may not be to everyone’s liking, but the way in which the actors bring the mannerisms of cats to the stage is unmistakable. Like me, you might even recognize characteristics of each of the cats matches one that you have at home (when you have six like me, that’s even easier to do). The dancing is beautiful, the acting incredible, and the songs even more memorable than the musical itself. If you loved the musical, you owe it to yourself to see the movie, you might not enjoy it more, but you certainly will enjoy it. If you hated the musical then I still suggest you catch this production (even if you wait for it to come to Netflix), because maybe it’ll change your mind. Even if you have no interest in seeing the movie at all, you should listen to Taylor Swift’s “Beautiful Ghosts”, maybe that alone will change your mind.
4 out of 5 stars.
Second Review by
by Joseph Saulnier
Cats was a huge phenomenon back in the 1980s. Everyone was talking about it, and everyone loved it. So, why not produce a film 39 years later? It is certainly interesting timing since I am pretty sure no one was really asking for a film, but musicals are becoming popular again thanks to productions like Hamilton. With today’s technology though, what can go wrong? Plenty. That’s what.
For those that are unaware, the film follows Victoria (Francesca Hayward) as she is abandoned and discovers a tribe of cats called Jellicles on the one night a year they choose a cat to transcend to Heaviside Layer and be reborn into a new Jellicle life. Along the adventure of her first night, she meets characters like Munkustrap (Robbie Fairchild), Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo), Bustopher Jones (James Corden), Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson), Mr. Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson), Gus the Theater Cat (Sir Ian McKellen), Old Deuteronomy (Dame Judi Dench), the ratty Grizabella (Jenifer Hudson) and the dastardly likes of Growltiger (Ray Winstone), Riumpleteazer (Naoimh Morgan), Mungojerrie (Danny Collins), Bombalurina (Taylor Swift) and their leader, Macavity (Idris Ilba), who is trying to eliminate the competition to become the chosen Jellicle Cat.
I will say this is first and foremost, there is a lot of talent on the screen. The music, the singing, it was all amazing. Over all, I think it would have been a really good film if not for two things that were just so distracting, it was hard to see past and really made me feel the 109-minute runtime of the film.
First, the movement of the cast/cats. I understand that these are humans playing cats, and cats are definitely more capable than we are in their jumping and acrobatics, but the movements and choreography in their exaggerated motions and awkwardness really pulls you out of the fantasy land the film is supposed to transfer to you. It’s really hard for me to describe, but when a character makes 2 or 3 different direction changes in mid-air, it becomes a little eye-catching. There was a lot of ballet and choreographed dance routines that I think the film could have benefited from just letting the actors do their thing. Let the dance take the center stage, and any necessary flourishes added such as when a cat needed to climb up a statue. I get the need for the wires and or special effects there. Adding the wires and exaggeration to the routine as much as was present really felt like an insult to the talented performers in the film.
The second, and I am sure that I am not alone in this, is the look of the cats. It is just so creepy. I honestly am not sure what can be done to fix this, but definitely not what was done. It was neat at points, with some dance “choreography” that couldn’t have been accomplished very well otherwise (synchronized tails everyone), but between the look of the cats, which was fairly inconsistent in the level of detail between each character, and the awkward movements, I found it very difficult to stay involved in and enjoy the film as much as I really could have.
Like I said, there’s a lot of talent. This being Hayward’s third film is a testament to her ability because not only could she sing well, but her acting, and especially the chemistry with Mistoffelees (Davidson), really is going to put her on the map. I would expect to see her in a few films down the road. James Corden and Rebel Wilson provided some excellent comic relief at points when it was needed the most, and our veterans in Dench, McKellan and Ilba all did what they do best. Make you believe.
The movie wasn’t horrible, and I am sure there are a lot of people out there who will enjoy this film immensely (I had a friend in attendance who had won VIP tickets through a radio contest who absolutely loved the film). But for me, there were just too many distractions to enjoy it properly. Unfortunately, it’s a little too late to fix the things I have talked about, but I am really surprised that none of this came up in test screenings. There are better selections in theaters this holiday season, but if you are big fan, or have a daughter (there were a lot of little girls present at the screening, which surprised me a little as I have never pegged this film as being a family film), then you might want to see this one in theaters.
2 stars out of 5