Since premiering in 1981 “Cats” has becoming one of the most enduring modern Broadway classics and the fourth-longest-running Broadway show in history. Written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and inspired by the works of T.S. Eliot “Cats” has gained quite a reputation often being considered among Broadway’s best or most ridiculous offerings depending on who you talk to. So when a big screen adaptation of the play was announced it seemed like the inevitable next step for the production and with director Tom Hooper on board, who brought “Les Miserable” to the big screen with mixed results in 2012, we knew there was at least an experienced adapter leading the charge. Focusing on a cat named Victoria who is abandoned in London and comes to join the Jellicles, a tribe of stray cats, the movie takes place over a single night as the tribe awaits the Jellicle choice where an elder picks a worthy cat to be resurrected into a better life. If that plot sounds ridiculous and complicated then don’t even bother with this review because this isn’t the movie for you, but if you’re still interested come with me as I explore how this musical adapts to a big screen feature. This is my review of “Cats”.
So yeah “Cats” is a bad movie…but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it. I’ll be honest I really did have fun watching this train wreck, and probably for all the wrong reasons, but the fact is I did, in fact, have fun. Before I get to the criticisms I think “Cats” deserves to be complimented where appropriate. The world building is pretty well defined from my perspective and despite the strange visual effects (more on that later) the performers do have a certain elegance about them as they attempt to capture the movements of the felines they’re meant to be playing. A lot of the choreography is odd and maybe a bit over the top but that’s honestly what I expected. “Cats” is an eccentric production to begin with but the way characters move and dance right down to the subtle twitches of their bodies as they walk through a simple doorway did actually remind me of how a cat would move, with a sense of caution and awareness of their surroundings but also with speed and commitment when they do charge ahead. Little details like this prove there was plenty of inspiration and attention to details incorporated into this film even if it doesn’t show in the larger elements at the forefront of the final product.
The music and singing were by far my favorite parts of the film though. The overture gives this movie a very theatrical vibe even if it unfortunately promises a much larger spectacle than we actually get. As for the singing, whether the songs were fun and upbeat or sad and forlorn every song had my attention thanks to the effective performances by the likes of James Corden, Jason Derulo, Taylor Swift, Rebel Wilson, Jennifer Hudson and newcomer and star Francesca Hayward who do give it their all and inject energy, life and heart into every note appropriately. Combine this with the visual style and choreography that always has something going on and its hard not to be invested in these musical numbers.
My favorite performances though are both the classic standout song of the original show and the new addition brought to the cinematic version by Swift and Andrew Lloyd Webber himself. First off is Hudson’s rendition of “Memory” which she blows out of the park perfectly capturing the sincerity, hurt and emotional struggle that this song is meant to evoke as a ballad dedicated to the torture of a present that feels so far flung from our glorious pasts. It’s complimented, both literally and figuratively as these songs are sung together twice in the film, by a brand new tune sung by Francesca Hayward as Victoria called “Beautiful Ghosts”. In the original production Victoria is a mostly speechless cat who uses dancing and expression to tell her story, but the film gives her a literal voice as she sings this song in response to Hudson’s Grizabella explaining that while Grizabella has ghosts of her glorious past haunting her depressing present Victoria has no positive ghosts of her former life and is just now finding the beauty of being included. It unites these two characters, one aged and left behind and one young and still looking for her place and creates a fantastic duality that I really wish this movie and story would have utilized better. The comparison between these two and their complimenting solos are really the best this movie has to offer and it might be worth seeing this film just to be able to experience this bridging of generations that shows the frustration of finding success and acceptance comes in many forms for everyone young and old.
So, let’s get back to why “Cats” isn’t a good movie overall. Despite the things I enjoyed about it, most of the rest of this movie I enjoyed for the wrong reasons and some aspects I really didn’t appreciate at all. For starters, yes, the visual representation of the cats is absolutely ridiculous most times. While I can appreciate the different attributes given to each character’s personality and look, the CGI is just good. It’s very clear these are people in blue suits dancing around a sound stage who had questionably rendered cat visuals overlaid on their bodies. A lot of times this results in pretty disturbing character designs as well, specifically with James Corden and Rebel Wilson. It’s also very clear this movie is cut for time. The Broadway production is nearly 2.5 hours when you include the intermission. The 1998 direct-to-video version was 115 minutes and this big screen version is even five minutes shorter. This movie FEELS like is cut out content for time leaving several story elements feeling muddled or severely summarized while others feel like they drag on. The villain for example, the dastardly Macavity played by Idris Elba, is almost inconsequential to this movie while big names like Taylor Swift, Jason Derulo, Ian McKellen and others have parts so small it makes you feel like their names were added to the roster just to draw people in to the theater even if they do take full advantage of their short screen time.
The overall experience I found to be more amusing and funnier than inspiring. I can split this movie into third, one third I liked for all the right reasons, one third I enjoyed for all the wrong reasons and the other third I didn’t like at all. That middle third of “Cats” I found enjoyable because of how ridiculous and insanely the experience was. Every time I saw a strange CGI rendering on screen I chuckled because I couldn’t believe that’s what they went with. Sometimes a song would go on so long that I’d laugh and wonder where it was all headed. Other times I simply said to myself “what am I watching” just because of the experience in general. As a result, because I found the film more amusing much of the time then it would shift to a genuinely emotional moment like the “Beautiful Ghosts” and “Memory” combination “Cats” presented such a jumbled mix of experiences that I could never really figure out where it was headed or trying to go which actually helped me invest more into the experience because it was so chaotic. I don’t believe this was the intended effect and it does present one of the film’s biggest flaws, inconsistent tone and story, but in a weird way it kind of worked for me. It still doesn’t save this movie from being a mess, but it made it tolerable and dare I say more fun than I think it deserved to be. I guess that makes “Cats” one of those movies that’s just so bad maybe it’s actually good in all the wrong ways.
“Cats” is destined for me to be one of my favorite bad movies ever, mostly because I personally feel like its blending of mismatched tones, fine singing and choreography with questionable CGI, and its off-putting pace that still somehow manages to be engaging all make for a watchable film…just not always for the right reasons. There’s nothing spectacularly clever about it yet there are some inspired elements. The music is well done and engaging but some of it drags on so long it feels inconsequential to the story. There’s a lot of heart in the duality of two of the key characters but the rest of the film feels more content with entertaining than sending a memorable message. There’s a certain spectacle to how the sets and characters were designed but the movie never feels like something that would be a Broadway play. It’s one of the most confused movies I’ve seen in a long time and that alone kind of makes it worth the experience. Is it the worst movie of 2019? Absolutely not. There have been several movies like “Hellboy” and “UglyDolls” that fail much more than “Cats”. But it’s still not a good movie. It is however one of those bad movies that is almost so bad it’s good because it’s so bizarre. Whether you want to give it a chance is up to you, but for me this is one of my favorite bad movies of the decade.