CATS review by Mark Walters – the long-running stage play just feels weird on the big screen

CATS review by Mark Walters – the long-running stage play just feels weird on the big screen

After running almost four decades on Broadway as an incredibly popular play, it’s actually a bit surprising Hollywood has taken this long to adapt CATS for the big screen. This weekend sees the release of director Tom Hooper’s attempt to bring to life the bizarre characters and wild visuals for moviegoers. The first trailer for the film met with tremendous criticism and negative reviews, mostly because of the awkward-looking CGI, particularly in the faces of the lead characters. Hooper even made comments about how the effects weren’t finished, and a second trailer eventually hit the web that looked somewhat improved. But the number one thing CATS has going against it this weekend is opening against the new STAR WARS movie. So does the end result stand a chance, even as counter-programming?

For those unfamiliar, the story of CATS revolves around an abandoned cat who meets a group of strays called the Jellicles, and tries to fit in while having encounters with various eclectic personalities. In the movie, those are portrayed by a mix of iconic actors and singers, and a few unfamiliar faces, all singing their story. Newcomer Francesca Hayward plays Victoria, the lead character who becomes the eyes of the audience. Other players include Idris Elba as the devilish Macavity, Judi Dench as the matriarchal Old Deuteronomy (portrayed by a man in the play), Ian McKellen as the elderly Gus The Theatre Cat, Rebel Wilson as the awkwardly portly Jennyanydots, James Corden as the amusingly portly Bustopher Jones, Taylor Swift as the seductive Bombalurina, Jason Derulo as the suave Rum Tum Tugger… and it goes on from there. One of the more interesting cat characters is Jennifer Hudson as the grizzled and timid Grizabella, who of course sings the legendary song “Memory” at a key moment in the story. Everyone in the cast is giving 110% and it shows, but the entire production feels odd and disconnected for some reason. Part of the issue is the heavy use of CGI to create the looks of the characters. In the play, you had actors wearing cat costumes and cat-like makeup… in the movie, the cat bodies are CGI-enhanced, and the actor faces are… well, human faces, which is weird. They don’t even bother giving them cat noses, even though they have CGI whiskers on every face. The final product does transport us into their world, but it feels very much like a fever dream more than a fantastical journey.

Hayward is stunning and beautiful, with a dream-like face and eyes that will mesmerize you. Her casting is perhaps the most perfect in the film, as she really does have a magical quality, and her ballet skills add to the beauty of her quiet yet fascinating performance. Judi Dench shines as Old Deuteronomy, transcending the CGI messiness the film often gets bogged down with, and turning in a performance that shows she can hold her own no matter what material she’s given. James Corden also has fun in his energetic role, and Laurie Davidson is quite good as the magical Mr. Mistoffelees. But some of the actors just don’t seem like a good fit, or can’t quite find the right rhythm in their roles. Rebel Wilson seems to be trying really hard for her comic relief, Ian McKellen never quite sells his brief performance, and Jason Derulo and Taylor Swift come across more like stunt casting to get younger viewers interested rather than the right choices for their scenes.

CATS is one song after another, very little room to breathe as a viewer, and some of the musical sequences seem to go on forever. Andrew Lloyd Webber actually wrote new songs just for the film, though they might have been unnecessary as often times it feels like we’re being subjected to one song too many as it is. Some scenes are good, and some exceptional (Hudson singing “Memory” is a show-stopper), but the overall product is just odd and kind of cold. As a play, CATS was already bizarre material, but as a movie it’s more of an exercise in the surreal that doesn’t really land well. I’m also confused as to why they didn’t just follow the play’s lead and put actors in cat costumes and cat-like make-up. The movie is already asking you to allow yourself to be transported into this fictional feline universe, so would it be that much of a stretch to just see the actors dressed like cats while there? I definitely think it would have played better than seeing human faces on CGI cat bodies.

While this isn’t the kind of movie I’d typically gravitate to, I’ve enjoyed Tom Hooper’s past work, and was particularly impressed with LES MISERABLES (2012), so I thought maybe he could pull some magic out of what appeared to be a messy attempt at adapting such unusual material. Sadly it just doesn’t work, and ends up looking and feeling like a bloated and expensive mess of a film. Outside of the one song everyone will be waiting for, there’s little else about this version of CATS to get excited about. I admire the effort, but the final product, not unlike the first trailer for it, remains a misfire.

CATS opens December 20, 2019

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About the Author

Born and raised in Dallas, Mark has been a movie critic since 1994, with reviews featured in print, radio and National TV. In 2001 he started the Entertainment section of the Herorealm website, where he contributed film reviews and celebrity interviews until 2004. After three years of service there, he started, which has become one of the Dallas film community's leading information websites. Bigfanboy hosts several movie screenings in the Texas area, and works closely with film and TV studios and promotional partners to host exciting events and contests. The site also features a variety of rare celebrity and filmmaker interviews, and regularly covers the film festival circuit as well. In addition to Hollywood reporting, Mark has worked for many years as an advertising and sci-fi/comic book artist. Clients have included Lucasfilm Ltd., Topps Trading Cards, The Dallas Mavericks and The Dallas Stars. From 2002 until 2015 he managed the Dallas Comic Con, Sci-Fi Expo and Fan Days events in the DFW area. He currently catalogs rare comic books and movie memorabilia for Heritage Auctions, and runs the Dallas Comic Show conventions, but remains an avid moviegoer and cinema buff.