DECEMBER 30, 2019
We’re not disputing the fact that “Cats” is a film atrocity. That’s a given. But let’s just take a moment to look back, though, as to why Tom Hooper’s film version is so awful.
First of all, can we all agree for the moment that Hooper is not inherently a bad director? His film of “The King’s Speech” is actually pretty good, though his adaptation of “Les Miz” was extremely shaky in parts. But nothing prepared me for what he had to deal with here, as it’s the material itself that’s a problem. The idea of adapting T.S. Eliot’s book of poetry, “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” as the basis of a musical is so nervy enough that I was actually rooting for it to succeed briefly at the time.
But when I finally wangled a ticket to it in 1982 at the Winter Garden Theater, I was stunned to realize how empty it was, as it’s up to the most senior jellicle cat (whatever that is) Old Deuteronomy (usually played by a male but here portrayed by Judi Dench) to annually select one cat to die and be sent up to a new level called Heaviside Layer, which will grant that lucky cat a new life. (If nothing else, the plot here reminds me of that of the horror film “Midsommar.”) The musical version basically consists of each jellicle cat singing “I’m such-and-such cat, and I can do such-and-such, and that’s why you should pick me.” That’s it. It’s kind of like a feline version of “American Idol,” only without the catty Simon Cowell.
Our entry point into this world is a cat named Victoria (British ballet star Francesca Hayward) who is dumped into the midst of the jellicoe cats and has to negotiate her way by herself. She mingles among the very many cats vying for the chance to be selected for Heaviside Layer — Bustopher Jones (James Corden), a much too well-fed cat; Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson, who is given a lot of unfortunate physical nonsense to do); the flirtatious Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo); and Growltiger (Ray Winstone), a bit of a pirate of a cat who’s up to no good. Best of all, though, is Gus (Ian McKellen), the Theatre Cat, who evokes a genuine sense of pathos as he looks back upon his career and how his life might have turned out differently.
Interrupting the proceedings is Bombalurina (Taylor Swift), the new main squeeze of the evil Macavity (Idris Elba), who believes that he is pulling the strings behind the scenes to make sure that he is the cat chosen to rise to the Heaviside Layer. Then there’s Macavity’s ex-squeeze, Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson), ironically named the Glamour Cat, who has been ostracized from the Jellicoe group for her relationship with Macavity and walks about wearing the tatters of her formerly lavish wardrobe.
Ballet plays a large part here, and rarely has such a special art form been used to so little effect. Hooper has constructed enormously oversized household objects to show just how small these cats really are, culminating in the film’s ludicrous finale in what looks like a mash-up of Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square as the cats raise their arms to the rising sun of the morning. It took every bit of self-control not to laugh at the ending — several members of my audience couldn’t resist.
If you feel that you definitely need to see “Cats” for however long it remains in theaters, I might suggest a hallucinogen to help relieve the pain. If it’s legal in your state, a pot edible would do the trick. Several tequila shots might be even better. But prepare to have your jaw hit the floor, because there’s has been nothing that’s been remotely close to the experience of watching this film unfold and wondering “How?…”