“Cats” isn’t quite the unmitigated disaster that some feared – or perversely hoped – but it’s not good, delivering a mostly incoherent adaptation of the long-running musical. An eclectic roster of stars claw out a few meager moments, but as screen experiences go, this is a memory best forgotten.
To be fair, the challenge facing director/co-writer Tom Hooper (“Les Miserables”) was perhaps insurmountable, to the extent that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical has always been more about spectacle and the theatrical experience than story. The near-absence of a plot might work well enough in a live context, but in a movie, it’s an awfully tedious way to spend time for those with only one life.
The approach to that dilemma hinged heavily on the production design, creating a cat-centric world scaled to make the actors look kitty sized. That’s then augmented with lots of energetic song and dance, the latter exploding in bouts of movement that resemble a furry ballet.
The requisite magic, however, never materializes, as the cats assemble for their annual Jellicle Ball, where they vie for the great honor of a new life, to be bestowed by the venerable Old Deuteronomy, somehow proving that Judi Dench can look dignified and regal under even the most ridiculous of circumstances.
As great a composer as Lloyd Weber is, his compositions set to T.S. Eliot’s poems, while lovely, are invariably more episodic than cohesive. Those qualities – and flaws – are magnified under the camera’s unforgiving eye.
The fresh set of eyes gazing upon the feline festivities, meanwhile, comes via Victoria (ballerina Francesca Hayward), a discarded stray who dances beautifully, sings well, and stares a lot in awe. As a movie newcomer she is of course promotionally eclipsed by a cast that essentially drops in to perform a number and then recedes, meaning if your incentive is to see Taylor Swift, the “select scene” function on the DVD player was made for such things.
That’s not to dis Swift, or a talented lineup that includes Rebel Wilson, James Corden, Jason Derulo and Idris Elba. Ian McKellen – with Dench, one of the group’s knighted members – bucks the odds by being winsomely charming, while Jennifer Hudson, as the worn-down Grizabella, belts out “Memory” and demonstrates that it’s possible to briefly conjure a spine-tingling moment even in a bad movie, although nothing to rival her breakout “Dreamgirls” role.
Ultimately, “Cats” feels like a conspicuous waste, in what the studio is describing as an “epic musical.” If the goal was to provide a holiday musical event that’s fun for the whole family, it’s a good idea in theory, packaged in the wrong litter box.
Critics and skeptics of the movie, admittedly, have been waiting to pounce, and the catty remarks won’t be charitable. Then again, when you put together a target as ripe as “Cats,” it stands to reason that people would unleash the hounds.
“Cats” premieres Dec. 20 in the US. It’s rated PG.