When the composer Andrew Lloyd Webber first played the score of his new musical Cats for the famed theatrical director Harold Prince, Prince was confused. He tried, as he recalled to the Los Angeles Times, to figure out the deeper themes of what he’d just heard. “I … said, ‘Andrew, I don’t understand. Is this about English politics? [Are] those cats Queen Victoria, Gladstone and Disraeli?’ He looked at me like I’d lost my mind, and after the longest pause said, ‘Hal, this is just about cats.’” The musical has been newly adapted for the silver screen by the director Tom Hooper, and this delightful anecdote provides a crucial mantra for watching: Don’t overthink it. Cats is about cats.
It might be hard to remember that when viewing Hooper’s film, because all of the cats involved (and boy, there are a lot of them) look like humans that are simultaneously furry and naked. Thanks to advances in “digital fur technology,” the all-star cast has been transformed into a pack of eldritch beasts with darting tails, human hands and feet, and whiskers on their weirdly expressive faces. It’s a visual approach that’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen at the movies, a genuinely daring way of recreating the characters played onstage by dancers in face paint and leotards. Accepting this Lovecraftian vision is the main barrier to entry for the Jellicle Ball, but if one can do that, there’s plenty to enjoy in this uniquely strange cinema event.
Cats is about cats, as Lloyd Webber insisted decades ago, but it’s also about the giddy joy of entering a world where the conventions of logic and narrative matter far less than sound and movement. What, you might ask, are the Jellicle cats, or the Jellicle Ball that they all attend? Just agreeable nonsense language drawn from T. S. Eliot’s poetry collection Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, which served as the lyrical inspiration for the musical. To Hooper, Jellicle seems to describe a sort of maniacal showiness: A Jellicle cat is the kind of cat that’s prone to striking exaggerated poses, wearing glitzy costumes, and singing extended songs about its own fabulously interesting personality.
The film’s story, such as it is, is told through the eyes of Victoria (played by Francesca Hayward), a newcomer to the faux-London alleys where the film is set. One by one, she meets a series of colorful strays eager to present themselves at the Jellicle Ball. There, the cats’ wise leader, Old Deuteronomy (a wonderfully committed Judi Dench), will select one of them to journey to the “Heaviside Layer” (an actual atmospheric phenomenon that here suggests some sort of reincarnation or afterlife). That’s the extent of the plot, though Hooper and his co-screenwriter, Lee Hall, have beefed up Victoria’s character from her dancing role in the original musical and added some magical nefariousness on the part of Macavity (Idris Elba), a growly playboy who is eager to triumph at the ball.
The success of Cats rests on the musical numbers, which vary wildly in terms of emotional heft and psychedelic flair. One of the first, featuring the comically lazy Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson), is a bore as long as it’s striving for slapstick comedy; it gets more compelling when conga lines of cockroaches with human faces start marching around the house in an image straight out of Naked Lunch. Those indelible moments aside, for the first 45 minutes of Cats I found myself struggling to adjust to the absolute madness of the visuals, which are not helped by over-eager editing that chops up Andy Blankenbuehler’s impressive choreography. Jason Derulo’s work as Rum Tum Tugger is a hyperactive mess; after James Corden’s long, dull sequence as Bustopher Jones, I was ready for a catnap.
Hooper’s all-out assault on the senses eventually wore me down, however, and I came to find the sincere theater-kid energy of the project oddly charming. When Ian McKellen was introduced as the melancholy Gus the Theatre Cat, I realized I was getting emotionally invested in these bizarre creatures; by the time Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat (Steven McRae) was dancing across a CGI railroad, I was practically ready to applaud. Like Lloyd Webber’s stage show, the film has a hypnotic effect that’s difficult to explain, except to say that the whole thing is so aggressively chipper and earnest that one can’t shoo it away.
That sense of a human connection is helped by Hooper’s insistence that actors sing live on set, so that the movie’s ultimate banger—Jennifer Hudson’s rendition of “Memory”—actually lands as a performance rather than just as part of a soundtrack. It’s a shame that this theatrical quality wasn’t carried through in other elements of the film. Hooper avoided the simple extended wide shots that might have showcased the ensemble’s dancing, perhaps thinking the effect would be too stagey. But Cats doesn’t need to be more cinematic; the CGI is transfixing enough as it is. Whether you think the imagery is beautiful or nightmarish, this is a film that demands to be looked at. If nothing else, I can confirm it’s the most Jellicle experience I’ve had all year.