By John H. Foote
What the hell is a Jellicle cat?
I have no clue.
I am sure not even the director of this film knows.,
Tom Hooper directed the superb HBO miniseries John Adams (2008) which led to his being handpicked to direct The King’s Speech (2010) which won him an Academy Award for Best Director. I have always maintained David Fincher was far more deserving of that Directing Oscar for his film for the ages The Social Network (2010) but to be fair Hooper made a solid, well-acted, crafted film.
He followed it with Les Miserables (2012) a big-budget adaptation of the iconic musical was a passion project for all concerned but the execution of the film was its flaw. Far too many close-ups hampered the film, the language of the movie. Top-notch performances were seen throughout the film, Anne Hathaway winning an Oscar, but sadly not the masterpiece everyone hoped for. And the love in for Hugh Jackman was a bit much, especially the statements Hooper made that the making of the film had been waiting for Jackman to create Jean Valjean. Um, excuse me, but Colm Wilkinson and Michael Burgess created Jean Valjean on the stage, Jackman followed their lead, firmly in their footsteps. Hooper’s comments were irresponsible.
The Danish Girl (2015) had some fine acting within, Eddie Redmayne especially, but never found an audience despite that Oscar for Supporting Actress Alicia Vikander.
Let me be clear, Cats is cat-astrophic.
Dreadful, a hellish experience because there are a half dozen glimpses of greatness and what might have been.
The most horrific film of a musical adapted from a popular show on Broadway since Sidney Lumet gave us The Wiz (1977) one of the worst musical adaptations of all time. Cats is not as terrible as The Wiz, nor as awful as Hello Dolly (1969) but it is still among the worst films of the year, a crushing disappointment, and sometimes feels like a bad acid trip. Perhaps smoking copious amounts of pot is how to see this mess.
Now that said, it also has moments of genuine beauty, Ian McKellan’s played out old theatre cat Gus is an absolute show stopper. Taylor Swift is quite effective, and yes, Jennifer Hudson belts out Memory as you would expect, goosebumps will rise. Francesca Hayward from England’s Royal Ballet is simply exquisite as Victoria, new to the surroundings, thrown from a car into the street. Long, lithe, with huge expressive eyes, she steals the film making it almost worthwhile, the single Star is shared by her and McKellan.
It must be remembered the play, and film really have no plot or rather one so slight it will not be remembered, no narrative. It seems to me to be a series of introductions to various cats, taken straight from the poetry of T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, and put to music by the gifted Andrew Lloyd Weber. Onstage the dancers, in bodysuits and light make up, cavort, dance and move as cats in a junkyard gathering for the annual Jellicle ball. Each cat, like all cats, has a very different, very real personality, all are portrayed by actors and dancers.
Onstage the setting is in and around a junkyard in London, where the felines await the arrival of Old Deuteronomy (Dame Judi Dench) a mystical cat who has the power to grant a deserving creature more lives. We see this even through the wide eyes of Victoria, and as it was on stage, it is really nothing more than a series of introductions to various cats.
There is poor Victoria (Francesca Hayward), tossed from a moving car by the family she thought loved her, Taylor Swift’s mysterious Bombaluria, Idris Elba is McCavity complete with green shiny eyes that give him the effect of being zombie cat, Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson) who is chubby, funny and always devouring mice and bugs, and falling down a lot, the magnificent theatre cat, Gus (Sir Ian McKellan) a sad-eyed cat reaching into the past for joy long gone, the rotund Bustopher Jones (James Corden), a surprising Ray Winstone as Growltiger and Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson as one-time glamour cat Grizabella. It is Hudson who belts out the musicals’ signature song, “Memory” and no question she has the voice and talent for it, but by the time we get to it, well you could sense a stampede brewing.
The action has been changed from a junkyard to in and around, inside and outside of Trafalgar Square in London. Oversized sets dwarf the actors and dancers, but not as much attention was paid to size when it comes to the mice and cockroaches, also portrayed by actors.
McKellan is haunting as old Gus and Dench, wise, powerful as Old Deuteronomy, a gender switch for the film that works seamlessly. Taylor Swift is very good, almost sexual but the film belongs to Francesca Hayward, though she might not want to shout that from the rooftops.
The sets are quite good, but that make-up, which attracted howls of protest in the summer when the first trailer was released is still creepy. Animation would have better served the play, handing the work to Pixar to create instead of this. Yes, what they have done using real people is very brave, but what often works onstage, does not translate well to film. The camera captures everything, that can never be forgotten, and as he did with Les Miserables, Hooper often goes close in, cheating us of the astonishing dance and body language of these superb dancers.
There are moments Cats soars, but all too often it is like getting smacked in the face with a scoop of litter fresh from the box. Kids will love it, young dancers will adore it, but the admiration will end there. How can a film with so many talented people be this awful?
In the end, it is simply Cat-ostrophically bad.
One of Canada’s best-known film critics, he spent 10 years on TV as co-host of Reel to Real, and another 10 in education (still writing as a critic) as Director of the Toronto Film School, where he created the curriculum for three programs and taught film history. Film has always been his passion. He has written for magazines such as Toronto Life, Fashion and Hollywood North, been quoted in the Los Angeles and New York Times, as well as the major Toronto dailies. Online he has written for such sites as The Wrap, In Contention, Awards Circuit and The Cinemaholic. His first book Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker, was published in 2010. His second Steven Spielberg: American Film Visionary, a massive volume, has just found a publisher and he’s working on American Film Renaissance – 1967-2018 with Nick Maylor. As a critic, he has had the good fortune to interview directors and stars such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Emma Stone, Jane Fonda, and countless others. As he quips, “Everyone but Jack Nicholson!”