Tom Hooper’s 2019 adaptation of “Cats” unfolds as an absurd and frequently nonsensical array of light and color, with actors bathed in ill-conceived CGI fur against a similarly invented London backdrop. Fans of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Broadway blockbuster, and anyone familiar with the movie’s viral trailer that stoked excitement and horror in equal measures, will know that sounds about right.
Hooper’s “Cats” adaptation delivers on those expectations and then some, which makes it a fascinating mess of exuberant musical numbers and scintillating digitized sets. Those human-cat terrors already looked ridiculous slinking about a giant junkyard set in body-suits; who thought that closeups would actually improve the show?
But there’s the rub: The argument against “Cats” also makes the case for its existence, because everything ludicrous about the show has been cranked up to 11, with a restless artificial camera and actors so keen on upstaging one another with excessive song-and-dance numbers they may as well be competing for a Heaviside Layer of their own. It takes some ambitious swings and works on its own terms in fits and starts, all while not really working at all. Like the T.S. Eliot poems that inspired it, “Cats” is an elaborate lark.
The “Heaviside Layer,” as adoring “Cats” stans know, provides the chief narrative device: It’s the place where one cat goes each year after the fabled Jellicle Ball, as the so-called tribe of “jellicle cats” audition for master of ceremonies Old Deuteronomy (a fierce Judi Dench) for the coveted opportunity to be reborn in a new world.
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In this case, that means Idris Elba, a maniacal delight, donning his best Freddy Krueger impersonation as the scheming Macavity; it means sad-eyed (and one-note) Jennifer Hudson belting out the iconic “Memory” as Grizabella; it means dopey James Corden as the bunny-like Bustopher Jones and Rebel Wilson as tabby Jennyanydots, each hopscotching through amusing slapstick numbers — involving trash heaps and dancing cockroaches and mice — that play like Busby Berkeley by way of “Joe’s Apartment.” And it means a superb Ian McKellen as Gus the Theatre Cat, raining lightning bolts down on an adoring cat crowd as he complains that modern productions just can’t stand up to the good old days.
Cat Gandolf speaks the truth: “Cats” channels the energy of its inspiration, owing much to its game performers, but often stumbles on attempts to reframe it in filmic terms. Through it all, the cats careen through hyperreal London sets where the scale always seems slightly off. One sequence finds three characters roaming a human household with giant utensils and hunks of meat, but elsewhere the sets appear much larger. While Hooper’s “Les Miserables” adaptation used the cityscape to inject a degree of naturalism into its staging, all bets are off here. And the newfangled storytelling thrust into the material doesn’t fare much better. Hooper and co-writer Lee Hall make several odd additions to the book, including a slim plot shoehorned into the last act and some ultra-cheesy spoken dialogue (somehow it seemed like a good idea to include both “Cat got your tongue?” and “Look what the cat dragged in!”).
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Despite appearances to the contrary, the movie doesn’t cater to the same cute aggression that fuels adoration for the actual species. Its psychedelic absurdity is less LOLcat than Cirque du SoLOL, and Hooper strives to match that superficial appeal where he can. He makes the strange decision to situate the drama around the experiences of a new arrival to the herd, the white cat Victoria (newcomer Francesca Hayward), as if “Cats” required some measure of guidance to make a little more sense.
But Victoria — who dances with a balletic poetry but rarely has much to say — remains such a passive character that the gimmick never serves much purpose, nor do the other narrative add-ons. Hooper even attempts to raise the stakes with a goofy kidnapping twist, and a crisis-of-faith moment for magician cat Mr. Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson), neither of which add much in the way of intrigue. (Though Mistoffelees’s sweet little song is quite the earworm.)
That’s because the gist of “Cats” is basically “A Chorus Line” meets Edward Gorey, with the boisterous auditions framed by a colorful gothic milieu. Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography has plenty of acrobatic twists, while Christopher Ross’ cinematography bathes the proceedings in deep yellows and neon pink that enhances the otherworldly aesthetic at every turn.
From a beguiling tap-dance against the London skyline to a catnip-spiced seduction courtesy of a nude Idris Elba (a lot of the cats are nude, but Elba looks really nude), the movie never lacks a polished frame. Paired with its barrage of candy-colored showstoppers, from mournful elegies to jazzy euphoric set pieces, the soundtrack delivers the goods. Yet there’s enough production muscle behind the movie that it’s a wonder nobody thought to improve the appearance of the critters at its center. By and large, the actors look more like the horned monstrosities of Matthew Barney’s “Cremaster Cycle” than adorable felines roaming a dormant city, and the sheer epistemological disconnect of watching these familiar faces beneath furry artificial tweaks never resolves itself.
But the appeal of “Cats” has never been about explaining its rough edges. Yes, there’s a forgettable new Taylor Swift song “Beautiful Ghosts,” which has nothing on her brief, ebullient appearance for a snazzy number at the ball where she’s basically Macavity’s version of Harley Quinn. But adding some 2019 pop-star polish doesn’t rationalize anything surrounding it, since the movie adheres to the anti-logic of its source. Pick apart the rules — why do the cats have hands and feet, but also claws? where are all the humans? where do the cats really want to go? — and it all falls down. “Cats” is “Cats” is “Cats,” and you either get that or you don’t.
Even by those metrics, however, the movie teeters by the end, ambling through a fourth-wall-breaking finale that somehow injects a listless quality into the captivating tableaux. There’s a haunting, elegiac underpinning to the idea of animals roaming through purgatorial emptiness as they struggle to stand out, and at times “Cats” recognizes that potential. Overall, however, it’s a spectacular paradox of a movie — at once too crazy for this world and not quite crazy enough.
Universal releases “Cats” nationwide on December 20, 2019.