At one point in Cats, a movie about humans that look like nightmarish half-cats, the great Idris Elba says one of the song and dance routines is inspiring and also terrifying. Nothing could summarize the total experience more clearly. Cats is a horrifying movie. It’s also a blast. It is going to get great play out of its central element of weirdness – and god, why did they clean it up – that is the appeal. It wastes no time between songs, as a starry cast of cat-humans jubilantly drift from song to song, reaffirming their place in a troubled world, all playing part in a grand contest to see which cat will reach ascension, to sacrifice their life for another, prolonged chance at life, a status of rebirth and immortality. It has as much to say about the human condition as it does fetishistic fan service. There is truly no other film like it.
Director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech, 2010 & Les Misérables, 2012) has made a very weird thing. Not only is it fundamentally an oddball production, but strange choices underly the very fabric of its conceit. The aesthetic choice that benefits the move from Broadway to screen is tragically absurd. The actors appear as God’s greatest mistake, sinfully half-realized, like they were put in a machine to become cats that stopped the transformation halfway. It feels ugly. It’s also an absolute puerile delight, an abandonment of sense and rationality, in favor of campy expression. It takes about fifteen minutes and it all sinks in: the weird picture stabilizes; the idea of cat people becomes real in our brains. We accept this weird, possibly flawed future of movie musicals as it stands. We live with it because Cats is a damn fun movie.
Here is the kicker about Cats: the songs are just wonderful. And they are neatly realized. With great fluidity, Hooper overcomes his grotesque concept by willfully twisting the Andrew Lloyd Weber score. The songs are pitch-perfect, naturally. It is really the culmination of unlike cultures, to have Weber paired with a brief Taylor Swift song. And how painfully brief and underserved if that is your ticket for entry, that Swift should only play a part in a song that is fundamentally for Elba’s villainous cat. Swifties (let’s agree to call the fanbase that) may find greater pleasure in holding for physical release, where they can make her great, singular effort the focal point of their experience.
Enough good things cannot be said about Francesca Hayward, who plays the central cat in the picture and holds the screen with great compassion. Even as a strange cat creature, she is magnificent to watch. And Jennifer Hudson reprises the honorary star role of Grizabella, who gets the most moving song of the bunch. There is one scene-stealing moment of exceptional note, where the movie has proud cinematic merits, as relative unknown Steven McRae plays a tapdancing Shimbleshanks with great performative energy. Then there are the dire lows of the movie – the type-casted fat jokes of the Rebel Wilson and James Cordon segments – two actors where a little is a lot, and there is a lot that does not amount to much.
There are trying moments of Cats, where Hooper skates by on the skin of his teeth. That he understands the performances, the movements, largely save the film. He’s able to derive energy from an able cast. Then there are times where it needs to move and nothing can distract from the uncanny weirdness of the computer touch-ups. In this way, it is the same as The Irishman (not the comparison I expected or wanted to use), get used to it, and it begins to flow. Perhaps the most damning thing is that Cats is not very bad at all.