Film adaptations from other mediums have been happening in Hollywood for years. But like the great Dr. Ian Malcolm once said, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Yes, I just quoted a line from a fictional doctor in “Jurassic Park,” because it applies to whomever decided “Cats” was a good idea to take from Broadway to the big screen. And we all know how that movie ends.
When the “Cats” trailer debuted on July 18, 2019, it was pure astonishment. I watched it and thought, ‘I’m not going to spend two hours watching this.’ It had somehow made the sexiest man alive, Idris Elba, into a horrible-looking CGI cat. But, alas, I tried to go into the film as objective as possible — and hoping I’d be proven wrong.
I want to be upfront and say that I have never watched the “Cats” Broadway musical and knew very little about the plot except for what the trailer laid out. If you have experienced the stage musical you may have a different experience watching this film than I did. This review skews for those who are going in not knowing anything at all and will not have any comparisons to the stage musical.
The “Cats” film is based on “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” by T.S. Eliot and the stage musical “Cats” by Andrew Lloyd Webber. The stage musical received its world premiere at the New London Theatre in 1981 and is one of the most successful and longest-running shows in West End and Broadway history.
The plot of the film goes like this: Every year a tribe of cats called the Jellicles must decide which one will ascend to the Heaviside Layer and come back to a new Jellicle life. The film has a star-studded cast that includes Judi Dench as Old Deuteronomy, Idris Elba as Macavity, Ian McKellen as Gus The Theatre Cat, Jennifer Hudson as Grizabella, Taylor Swift as Bombalurina, James Corden as Bustopher Jones, Rebel Wilson as Jennyanydots and introduces Francesca Hayward as Victoria. “Cats” is directed by Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech,” “The Danish Girl).
Some of the casting choices saved this film from being completely disastrous. Hudson, Dench and McKellen were all stunning. The legendary Dench did the best she could as Old Deuteronomy, and it was to the film’s benefit that they acquired such a talent to ground the film in some legitimacy. Dench can do no wrong, even as a cat. She manages to make you care about these Jellicle cats. What can I say: I was digging her lioness mane — but only hers.
And there’s no denying the sheer awe one gets when listening to Hudson’s voice. When she appeared on screen and starting belting out her tunes, I got so entranced that I almost forget I was watching “Cats.” Her version of the famed song “Memory” will be one of the things that lives on from this film. Heck, I may have already played it a few times after watching it. It was dazzling, and her performance may even bring you to tears.
McKellen as Gus The Theatre Cat was simply adorable, and it was fun seeing him in this role.
Newcomer Hayward as Victoria was also another plus for me. From being a principal dancer in the Royal Ballet to “Cats” is quite the leap. But she held her own next to Hudson and Dench, and it was nice to see fresh talent on screen. And I’m guessing this won’t be the last time we see her — at least I hope it isn’t.
A big part of a musical is the dancing and choreography. “Cats” was under the guidance of Tony-winning choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler (“Hamilton,” “In the Heights”) and featured a variety of dance styles. The dance numbers were fun to watch, and there’s a tap dance sequence that stood out more than any of the others.
I try to go in with an open mind and give every film a fair shake, because I appreciate the effort that goes into making a film. Making films is not easy, and adapting something as beloved as “Cats” must have been a monumental task. I think there’s a film version of “Cats” that could work, but this isn’t it.
First off, the CGI and character design of the cats was something that I just couldn’t get on board with. As the film went on, I couldn’t stop thinking, ‘Why is this so bad?’ If this had been five to 10 years ago I may have given it some leeway, but we live in a world where CGI in television shows is top notch. So it almost feels like they could have done better, yet settled for what ended up on screen. The cats having human hands, faces and feet was just off-putting to watch. And don’t get me started on the cockroaches and mice that were given human faces — some even had children’s faces! That was unnecessary and cringeworthy to say the least.
With the bad CGI came the lackluster set and production design. They didn’t mesh well together, and it looked fake. The set design seemed like it was mimicking a Broadway stage set and it didn’t translate to film. It didn’t feel grand enough to dazzle and needed to be adapted a bit more to work in this medium.
In terms of the story, I didn’t care for the tired use of stereotypical fat jokes and the playing of said fatness as comedy. Using Corden and Wilson in these bits seemed like an ill choice as well. Although this might be a personal preference as it pertains to comedy, it didn’t work for me. Hard pass. It felt like lazy writing and something that’s already been played to so many times before. Speaking of lazy writing, there are a few cringey cat jokes that did not need to be included.
And there’s the other issues, like the wasted opportunity of Elba. I loved him playing the villainous role of Macavity, but having him play alongside Swift in a dance number was not good. And seeing the full-body CGI cat suit of his was CRINGE! Swift was okay, but distracting. And the whole film had the cats being very prance-like, which I guess is supposed to evoke a cat-like quality, but it felt silly at times and sexualized at other times, which I’m guessing was not the filmmakers’ intent.
Overall, “Cats” did not work for me. While I don’t think it’s the worst thing I’ve seen, it certainly left a lot to be desired.
So, do I recommend this film? It depends. Did you love “Cats” the stage musical? If yes, go watch the film, as you may get a kick out of this. Do you need to be selective on what you’re spending your money on? Don’t watch the film in theaters. Wait for it on streaming. Do you want to kill some time on Christmas and just have an experience and fun time? Buy a ticket; it will be a hoot.
Catherine grew up watching action flicks at a very young age which led to her love of film. She graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a Bachelors in Radio-TV-Film in 2012. Always the adventurer, Catherine traveled and lived in Sydney, Australia for a year where she took a selfie with Brad Pitt. She runs Shuffle with passion, lots of caffeine and tacos. When she’s not editing or writing you can find her crafting and planning her next adventure.