Jason Derulo in Cats (Photo: Universal)

CATS
★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Tom Hooper
STARS Francesca Hayward, Judi Dench

(For a look at The 10 Best & 10 Worst Films of 2019, go here.)

There’s a scene in 1993’s Wayne’s World 2 in which Garth (Dana Carvey), upon hearing the name Kenny G, imagines himself sitting in attendance at one of his concerts while having his teeth painfully drilled by a dentist. Suffering through the cinematic abomination that is Cats, I recalled this sequence and then moved way past it. Instead of poor Garth, I imagined myself as the cop in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, having his ear sliced off by Michael Madsen. I imagined myself as the poor woman in Fulci’s Zombie, whose eyeball gets punctured by a particularly pointy piece of splintered wood. I imagined myself as Dante, preparing to tackle the nine circles of Hell but first weighing the gravity of the words at the entrance: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” Come to think of it, movie theaters would do well to helpfully post that disclaimer right outside the auditorium, perhaps underneath the showtimes.

Incidentally, Carvey’s co-star in the Wayne’s World flicks was of course Mike Myers, who headlined his own feline-inspired atrocity back in 2003. The Cat in the Hat is a worse film than Cats, but at least there, audiences had to cope with only one kitty. Cats features ample Mike Myers at every turn and in every frame — it’s like watching the ’03 flick from the POV of the man-fly in 1958’s The Fly as he peers upon his wife through kaleidoscopic peepers. Thankfully, nobody in this new film lasciviously licks his lips at a garden tool and mutters, “You dirty hoe” — then again, there is the spectacle of the lazy cat Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson) munching on cockroaches and spreading her legs Sharon Stone-style to expose pussy galore.

Disclaimer: I was never a fan of the wildly popular stage show, but I certainly didn’t hate it. It was at worst a shallow but harmless piffle, certainly not in the same league as other Andrew Lloyd Webber productions like Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita. But this screen version takes the theatrical experience and sours it for the movie screen, with bad decisions crippling the piece at every turn. Those completely enamored of the stage show may very well love it, but the uninitiated might want to consider a hard pass.

Royal Ballet star Francesca Hayward makes her film debut as Victoria, a cat who’s abandoned on the London streets by her owners. She’s taken in by a group of cats known as Jellicles, and these felines explain how the sage Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) chooses which cat gets to ascend to the Heaviside Layer and begin a new life. Like American Idol contestants, these creatures fall all over themselves vying for the prize, from the blowhard Bustopher Jones (James Corden) to the frail Gus the Theatre Cat (Ian McKellen). On the outskirts are the villainous Macavity (Idris Elba), who plots to win the competition by devious means, and the impoverished Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson), a former society cat now shunned by the rest of the gang. It’s Grizabella who sings the show’s signature tune “Memory,” although, in this interpretation, there’s no emotional resonance behind it.

Film Title: Cats
Poor Ian McKellen, looking as if he’s being held hostage

Rather than stuffing them inside actual costumes, the actors are transformed into cats via digital means, but it’s immensely off-putting and in some instances even a bit creepy. The CGI is slathered over this picture like copious ketchup pouring too fast over fries, in effect drowning everything that feels remotely natural or authentic. Seeing Dench and McKellen look like they recently escaped from Dr. Moreau’s island results in discomfort, not joy. The choreography is by multiple Tony Award winner Andy Blankenbuehler (Hamilton), but while some of the dancing comes through unscathed, many of the movements do not. The effects should enhance the leaping about so that the actors slink and glide like felines, but the result is instead a herky-jerky motion, bringing to mind yet another cat — the one spotted by Neo as “a glitch in the matrix.”

For all its visual grotesqueness, the worst thing about Cats is that it’s often excruciatingly boring. Tom Hooper, whose direction of 2012’s Les Miserables yielded so-so results, gets completely overwhelmed by the artificiality of this endeavor, and, unless one is a devotee of the show, each subsequent song isn’t another gift to be unwrapped but another chore to be endured. I’ve never walked out of a movie and I never will, but this was one of those instances in which I felt so angry at a film for wasting my time that flight seemed like a reasonable option.

Is there anything of merit in Cats? Certainly. There’s a tap number that’s pleasing (or maybe it’s just my lifelong love of tap dancing, fostered by catching numerous Fred Astaire flicks during my childhood, that allowed me to be lenient). And, perhaps surprisingly, there’s a solo number by Taylor Swift (cast as the purring feline Bombalurina) that proves to be the film’s highlight. As she sings and sashays her way through “Macavity: The Mystery Cat,” she momentarily shakes off the rigor mortis curbing the rest of this bloated boondoggle.

1 Comment »

  1. Am I wrong, or does it seem like this is basically going to appeal to furries and superfans? Leaving the rest of us out in the cold?

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