It’s not often you get the same hallucinations associated with hardcore drugs for the price of a movie ticket. Thankfully, for the thrifty addicts out there comes Tom Hooper’s musical Cats. Adapted from Andrew Llyod Weber, who to the mystery of everyone adapted his musical from T.S. Elliot, the film mirrors the play through its whimsical yet nonexistent story. Taking place over the course of one night in London’s West End, a group of cats (the Jellicles) perform for the honor of ascending to Heaviside Layer for their rebirth. An odd assortment of batshit words, nevertheless Hooper’s musical is a disaster reveling in its fallout, a cat-aclysmic shock wave with bits of campy shrapnel decimating anyone within its blast radius. In short, it’s incredible.
Indeed, in order to recount what works in Cats, you have to start with what doesn’t. Because they’re one and the same. From the moment a car pulls into an alley and dumps a pillowcase containing Victoria (Francesca Hayward)—a now abandoned feline—onto the street—we know that nothing will be to scale and the power of digital fur technology is probably too great for humans to wield. These components cause the intended hyper-realism to devolve into frivolity, obfuscating the intentional seriousness.
In the span of a few minutes, Victoria meets the many felines competing for the Jellicle choice. They include the Falstaffian Bustopher Jones (James Corden, whose trash-eating cat is the one I most identify with), the ostracized Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson), the flamboyant Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo), and the magical Mr. Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson).
Nevertheless, Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson) and the villainous Macavity (Idris Elba) stick out for their tomfoolery. In one number, the former dances with tiny mice adorned with the faces of children and poorly rendered cockroaches with human visages. For Elba, every time his character disappears into dust it carries an eccentric timing that shifts into the comedic. For much of the musical, he wears a fedora and fur coat, but he ditches these threads later on. Naked and overtly shinny, I’m not sure his cat body matches the dimensions of his real one. Is he a facsimile of himself or a feline? Such are the tough existential questions Hooper demands. Nevertheless, one truism remains, everyone in the cast sells out no matter the task.
A bevy of the film’s components only succeed due to the cast. That’s not a mark against the original musical, but the spotty VFX (which admittedly have improved since the trailer dropped), the production’s inconsistent scale, and haphazard character designs are oddly endearing. Some cats wear shoes, others wear real clothes, and others fur coats made of cat fur. Why? Are they cannibalistic animals whose brazen flaunting of trophy kills stems from their narcissistic desire for the Jellicle choice? No, it’s just Cats you fools. Trashy cats. Ian McKellen as Gus the Theatre Cat goes full camp while Judi Dench in the role of Old Deuteronomy retains her regal class above the film’s station. Though their respective vocal performances aren’t accomplished with great adeptness, McKellen and Dench still carry the day.
Furthermore, the opening half of Hooper’s musical, his first since the ill-fated Les Misérables, often flies off the rails. The “Bustopher Jones: The Cat About Town” number would’ve made more sense as a D.A.R.E. commercial, as Corben shifts from megaton height to a tiny cat eating rotten food. Don’t do drugs, kids. While “Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer” is below mention. It’s not until Jennifer Hudson’s reprise of “Memories” that the emotional center of the musical sweeps you from its cocaine storm into heart aching bliss. A cat-apult into poignancy. And while these felines rarely dance well, when they do, they tap dance on train tracks bigger than two-story buildings. The sheer devotion the cast gives over the course of two hours by everyone involved never wavers.
Moreover, Hooper’s Cats acts as a sexual awakening. Bombalurina (Taylor Swift) provides thrills in a film that’s surprisingly very horny and queer. Love triangles involving Victoria are teased. Also Old Deuteronomy flirts with a much younger cat too (meow), while gay and lesbian felines sensually rub their faces together. It’s a expression of desire that timidly dips a paw into the water at some points, and shamelessly dives in at others. Like much of the musical, the inconsistent extent of the sexual dalliances mires the emotional pull of the film. Nevertheless the willingness to take a swing while knowing its riskiness, makes Hooper’s shortcomings forgivable and terribly funny. Cats succeeds on its own terms. Its own harebrained, roller coaster, what did we do last night that has me waking up in a temple in Kyoto wearing someone else’s pants way. It’s a Rocky Horror Picture Show. In short, it’s trash and I adored it.