The process of adapting a Broadway musical to the big screen can be a long and arduous one, even for classics of the genre. It took 32 years to make Les Misérables, 28 years to make Sweeney Todd, and 27 years to make Chicago. So it’s no surprise that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats is just now being made into a movie 38 years after it launched in London and 37 years after its Broadway debut.
Of course, another obstacle for this particular production is how to portray the actors. Do you go with the boas, striped tights, and leg warmers of the theater production? Or do you attempt to use CGI, turning the actors into approximations of actual cats? Director Tom Hooper and his team have gone with the latter option, a somewhat creepy effect that colors the entire film.
Cats, based on T.S. Eliot’s 1939 poetry collection, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, is a sung-through musical, meaning that any plot developments are done through song. That may be great for those who are already intimately familiar with the production, but for anyone who isn’t, like yours truly, trying to figure out what the hell is going on is a challenging experience.
What can be gleaned is that a cat named Angelica (Francesca Hayward) is the focus of the plot after being dumped in an alley. The resident alley cats quickly take her in and make her a part of a highly confusing ritual of choosing the ultimate “Jellicle” cat, whatever that is.
The majority of the songs involve introducing various notable cats, most of whom are vying for the Jellicle position. They include Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson), Bustopher Jones (James Corden), Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson), and Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo). Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) rules over the competition, while Macavity (Idris Elba) does his evil best to disrupt it.
Like many musical-to-movie adaptations, Cats is stuck somewhere in between adhering to what made the musical one of the most successful productions in history, and making those scenes cinematic. With its highly stylized, oversized sets and defined transitions between songs, the film feels much more like a filmed version of a theatrical production than a true movie.
Other than the oddity of seeing cats with human faces, fingers, and toes, the computer-generated effect of turning the actors into felines works well. Not every actor is convincing, but enough of them are to not make their looks distracting. What is befuddling is the rest of the computer imagery, which is hit-and-miss depending on what’s being shown. More than few scenes appear to not be fully rendered, making the film feel rushed instead of a fully-realized effort.
Hayward makes for an appealing lead, with her lithe movements and bright face. Her voice is not Broadway quality, but she acquits herself well in her songs. Hudson gets the showcase song of “Memory,” which she predictably knocks out of the park, but she gets done in by her emotional acting, which produces a constantly running nose. I’m not sure of the point of leaving her snot in when they CGI’ed everything else, but it proves immensely off-putting.
The rest of the cast is … fine. People like Wilson, Corden, Derulo, and Taylor Swift don’t seem to be stretching all that much, while Dench and Ian McKellen can make anything work. Elba is the only one who truly goes for the gusto, but the lack of clarity on his character’s purpose keeps him from being transcendent.
Watching the film version of Cats is truly mystifying, in neither a completely bad nor completely good way. Fans of the theater production may enjoy seeing their favorite songs or characters again, but there’s little to recommend for anyone else.