Cats (2019) Review

JELLICLE CATS COME OUT TO PLAY.

HOOPER’S CATS IS IN DISARRAY.


 

Composer and impresario of musical theatres, Andrew Lloyd Weber has indeed been a “hallmark” name of theatrical stage production; drawing in viewers with his dazzling narratives and lyrical songs that have stayed memorable throughout the years. With such big musical shows, including The Phantom of the Opera, Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Evita, just to name a few. In amongst these largely popular productions, Weber produced the theatrical stage musical titled Cats, which was based on the 1939 poetry collection “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” by T.S. Eilot. Within the play, the narrative focuses on a tribe of cats called the “Jellicies” and the night they make the “Jellicle choice”; promising a new life to the one chosen. Debuting back in 1981 at the popular West End and then later on Broadway, Cats went on received numerous awards and accolades from theater critics and viewers alike, with the musical becoming a commercial success (running for 21 years) as well as the popular song “Memory”. As of 2019, Cats remains the fourth longest running Broadway show and the sixth longest running West End show. Now, Universal Pictures and director Tom Hooper give a cinematic adaptation to Andrew Lloyd Weber’s beloved musical with the movie Cats. Does this movie find the “cat’s meow” within its presentation or does falter with its visual aspect and narrative storytelling?

THE STORY


On the streets of London lives collection of special felines called “Jellicle cats”, with Victoria (Francesca Hayward, being the relative stray newcomer to the community after being dumped by her owners. She’s welcomed by Munkstrap (Robbie Fairchild) and Mr. Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson), who shares the world of the Jellicles with Victoria, with the cats gleefully preparing for the performance at Jellicle Ball, an annual talent show that is presided over by Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench), who selects one feline to make the journey to the mysterious Heaviside Layer, a place where a cat is reborn into a better life. As the cat sing their lives and tell their stories, the villainous Macavity (Idris Elba), a magically inclined cat who wants claim the ultimate prize for himself, stands in the way of peace, working to make the competition side in his favor. During the confusion and competition, Victoria shows interest (and overall comfort) in Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson), a tattered and social shunned cat who craves redemption with the hope of reaching the other side for a second chance.

THE GOOD / THE BAD


Although I do love movies, I do have to say that I do quite enjoy theatrical stage productions as well. Technically, both are quite similar in projecting storytelling through imagery and characters, but something about theater stage shows is quite alluring…. sometimes magical. Of course, while I’ve seeing several smaller scale shows, including ones that my highs school drama club put on (which were still great), I have seeing some of the larger / famous ones out there from the actual big theater companies that produced them, including Les Miserable, Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat, Phantom of the Opera, The Lion King, and (of course) Cats. I do have to admit that, while I loved these musical stage productions, Cats (believe it or not) was probably the one that was the least interesting to me. I vaguely remember it and really couldn’t tell you much about it. I remember the costumes were really good and have clear thought of how it all ends (i.e. who wins the “Jellicle choice), but everything else is kind of a blur to me, including the song “Memory”. I’m not saying that Cats was a bad play or anything like that, but it was the one that wasn’t interesting to me, especially compared to the rest I saw….my personal favorite was Phantom of the Opera.

Naturally, this brings me back to talking about Cats, a 2019 feature film that’s a cinematic adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical. I do have to admit that this movie wasn’t exactly on my “movie radar”, so I really didn’t hear (or pay attention) to any announcements made about 2019’s Cats for its casting and production news. So, my really “first look” at this project was when the film’s first movie trailer was released during the summertime of 2019 and I do have to say that I was quite taking with what was shown. As I mentioned, I really care remember that much about the actual Cats play, so I was quite intrigued by the film’s narrative and all the various characters. Plus, the film’s cast looked to be very solid as well as the visual look and appeal appeared to be quite dazzling; something akin to the Broadway show. However, the movie’s advanced reviews promoted that the feature wasn’t exactly stellar by stating Cats was far from being the musical event of the year (of which was promised in its anticipation marketing campaign). So, I went to see Cats over its opening weekend, with the mindset of “hoping for the best, but expecting worst”. And what did I think of it? Well, some things I agree with the advance reviews for the movie, but it’s not as deplorable as some are making it out to be. In truth, Cats, is a visual ambitious project that keeps its spectacle bizarre and thinly sketched; offering up a confusing feature that, while musically charged, does little to add vigor to Weber’s original stage play.

Cats is directed by Tom Hooper, whose previous directorial works includes such films endeavors such as The King’s Speech, The Danish Girl, and Les Miserable. Given his past filmmaking productions, especially considering the Oscar-winning The King’s Speech and the musical adaptation of Les Mis, Hooper seems like the perfect choice for bringing Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical play to the silver screen. From the opening scene, Hooper makes the film have that “old school” musical feel, which is great and definitely has that “theatrical boldness” that both the original musical stage production achieved and what the movie wants to project. In that regard, Hooper succeeds with Cats; bringing a sense of grandiose enchantment to the feature and producing something that has a high production quality. This is most apparent in the film’s background and setting, with Hooper undeniably excelling in this category. Restricted from the singular stage, Hooper presents Weber’s musical into a cinematic light; offering a dazzling array of set-pieces and sequences that feel (buy and large) wholesome, using the streets of London as the film’s main backdrop. Likewise, the usage of imposing the largeness of the human world to a Cat’s size and perception is also quite unique and definitely adds character to the feature, with each set piece having a very distinct “look and feel” from opulent households to the abandoned theater stages. It’s quite clear that Hopper and his team are trying to convey in the overall visual appeal of Cats, which definitely works, as the film’s “behind the scenes” team, which consist of Eve Stewart (production designs), Rebecca Pilkington (set decorations), and the entire art directions, deserve praise for their efforts on the project. Additionally, the various costume designs by Paco Delgado and the entire make-up team should also be praise as Cat’s various characters are quite unique and have his or her own distinct physical look. Plus, with the movie being a musical, I have mention that the choreography work by Andy Blankenbuehler, which offers up plenty of fanciful dance movements (many of them in the style of ballerina rhythm) as well as combining the feline movements / characteristic of that cats. I do have mix feelings about the choreography, but I’ll mention more below. Still, even if the movie isn’t to everyone’s liking, Cats will be remembered for visual look rather than being memorable (for better or worse).

Unfortunately, Cats, despite its theatrical stage reputation and its anticipation into a cinematic filmmaking platform, falls short of its own ambition and ends up muddling its own endeavor. Perhaps the reason for this lies within its visual take its own narrative, which most notably in its digital CGI effects. While CG visual are quite common in today’s Hollywood features and definitely aided cinematic nuances in bring to life certain characters and settings that practical effects and / or human body acting couldn’t achieve, it has to be done in way that its deemed worth enough to be projected in such way. 2019 has seeing plenty of CGI visual effects in films used the right way from Alita: Battle Angel, Avengers: Endgame, and The Lion King, so it seems that Hooper’s Cats was gonna be right up the alley. However, it comes across in a mixed way, with many of the visual effects being a bit “dated”, especially comparsion to many of the 2019 visual effect productions. I’m not saying that the entire visual effect aesthetics are rubbish, but there are many sequences where you can obviously tell that some of effect shots are computer generated with a fake look to them; not exactly matching the body movement to the face. In some cases, most notably with James Corden and Rebel Wilson’s characters, it’s as if they simply just took their faces and drop them on top of a rotund cat / humanoid body. This, along with several other visual effect problems, weigh the feature down and end up messing the movie up rather than enriching the movie. It wasn’t super bothersome to me, but this problem seems to be the ultimate crux of criticism that many viewers (both critics and moviegoers) share.

Personally, my main complaint about the movie lies within its actually narrative, which is a combination of both Weber’s original stage musical and Hooper’s interoperation of it. What do I mean? Well, Cats, despite its popularity, does have much of strong narrative as its fame lies within production and the various characters that sing throughout. This means that the story takes a back seat for most of the feature and really doesn’t pick up until the latter half. Of course, that’s how Weber original designed, which is why the appeal of the musical has certainly divided its viewers; polarizing the theater stage with its cult-ish following, with some praising it and others dismissing it. This is probably why I can’t really remember much of Cats when I saw years ago as it really doesn’t live much of a strong impression within its tale and how it all plays out. So, with Hooper’s film adaptation, I kind of wanted to see certain stuff to be fleshed out a bit more, with cinematic storytelling able to take the stage musical to new scenes and ideas and ultimately adding to the source material. Unfortunately, it does little in that department. The film’s screenplay which was penned by both Hooper and Lee Hall, doesn’t add much innovation and / or creative reworking of Weber’s musical; rather relying heavily upon the story’s feline stage premise and theatrical pedigree. This makes the movie feel jumbled and wonky right from the get-go and doesn’t have a strong instant connection with its viewers, who (most likely) will be turned off by it.

In truth, the first half of the feature is rather quite boring as it seems that Hooper does not wants to “upset the apple cart”; taking the film on musical journey that seems almost like a radio carousel of song hits that’s played by different artists and different genres. Again, this was partial designed by Weber’s musical, but Hooper doesn’t really “entice” viewers and just ends creating a jumble of songs that quite have the impact as planned. Of course, this goes back to the musical’s thinly sketched story, which definitely lacks narrative bulk, and doesn’t have much going for it, with Hooper taking the story to a visual height within its CGI effects, but ends up rather befuddling its presentation with a weaker and perplexing execution. It basically goes like this…. a character is introduced, sings a song, then another character appears, sings a song, and so on and so forth. So, there’s plenty of various characters, but Hooper (much like the stage play) doesn’t know what to do with them, which makes all (for the most part) paper thin and generic

The latter half as a bit more bite to it, which offers up the famous “Memory” song and overall resolution to the story, but getting there is quite a bore as Hooper just seems to indulge himself in dancing and showmanship of the feline premise than actual crafting a proper musical hit. Speaking of showmanship, the dancing throughout Cats is, of course, is a big highlight point that makes a profound statement throughout (as mentioned above). That being said, I just think there too much of it. I know…that sounds stupid, but there’s just too much ballerina movement dancing that does little at excitement and appeal. Some parts are good, especially involving Francesca Hayward (more on that below), but even the choreography falls flat and lacks that “theatrical spark”. Plus, the dizzying camera work by cinematographer Christopher Ross is a haphazard and feels choppy when pairing the images together through film editing. Again, I understand that there trying to go for a frenzy feline movement and theatrical boldness of stage dancing, but it projects the wrong feeling and ends up alienating the enjoyment.

This, of course, brings up the various musical songs that appear in Cats. The problem with this is somewhat similar to the actual musical stage play, with many songs blending together in mundane way; having that interchangeable feeling throughout, with many being not really being interesting or memorable. Naturally, the song “Memories”, the big musical number of Cats, is still ever present and definitely drums up the absolute best part of the movie, especially who sings it. However, a lot of the other songs don’t really stand out amongst the crowd and are very much the same. Besides “Memories”, the only other songs that I liked were “Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat” and “Macavity: The Mystery Cat”, with the former been lively and having a snappy charm to it and the latter being similar to an “old school” burlesque number. Everything else wasn’t interesting and just not musically memorable.

Some of these problems listed above (again) stem from Weber’s musical stage play, so it can be a bit overlooked, especially since Cats doesn’t have a lot of substance in both narrative storytelling and its one-note characters. That being said, Hooper knows how stage a musical, especially after doing Les Miserable, but his iteration of Cats does little to push boundaries of cinematic creativity; producing something that doesn’t work properly with more theatrical flourishes than a steady hand in adapting a musical play. There’s also an inconsistent tone throughout the movie, especially when Macavity shows up. Much of the narrative is light with some palpable moments sprinkled, but the underling maleficent nature of Macavity doesn’t work. Plus, it feels like Hooper and Hall’s screenplay wants to do more with the character of Macavity, but choose to restraint him, especially near the end. In truth, I don’t think Cats should’ve been adapted into a motion picture as there’s not much substance to fill its allotted runtime, with Hooper’s Cats making the film 110 minutes (one hour and fifty minutes) long. Thus, from start to finish, Cats is a beautiful mess of sorts with scant plot (that doesn’t have much of a plot to begin with) and uninteresting musical songs of which Hooper lacks the finesse to hone in on to expand / elaborate upon its source material. In short, Hooper doesn’t take much “creative liberties” with the project; producing something that feels empty.

What definitely helps the movie look beyond a lot of these pitfalls and critical criticisms are the acting talents involved in Cats. With sprawling cast of star-studded actors / actresses (as well as a few musical performers), Cats, despite its problems, should elevate the feature. Unfortunately, while this works, it also brings the feature’s other problem, which is various characters. What do I mean? They’re too many and just not enough time to fully understand beyond their initial character setup. Of course, the talents involved are great and bringing their screen presence to the proceedings as its quite obvious that all of the cast are certainly having fun on Cats, but all are just underutilized within their thinly written character roles. This quite pin-pointed to the feature’s somewhat main character that we (the viewers) follow, which is the character of Victoria and who is played by ballerina newcomer Francesca Hayward. Giving her stage / ballerina background, Hayward is simply a delight whenever she’s on-screen and projects the right amount of youthful naivety and curiosity of the Jellicles newcomer clan. Plus, her ballerina moments are beautiful; handling all the movements with grace and poise. The only downside is that there’s not much to her. Of course, being the relatively new member of the feline clan, the bulk of the movie follows Victoria through the events; introducing us (the viewers) through her experiences as she meets and learns all the various players of the Jellicle cats as well as the Jellicle Ball / Choice. Beyond that, her character is unimportant with the film developing little to no personality for her. Of course, the stage musical is like this, but I expecting a bit more in Victoria (more of a character build). Thus, Hayward is cute and pretty as Victoria, but more of plot device than anything else.

The other main attraction star of Cats is musical singer Jennifer Hudson, who plays the character of Grizabella, a disgraced cat that the Jellicles shun for her past actions. Much like the original musical stage play, the character of Grizabella is truly the “heart” of Cats and holds the most memorable song of the story (i.e. “Memory”), with Hudson belting out the song with such dramatic boldness and raw emotion that it will definitely bring a tear to your eye when she sings it. It’s definitely the climatic point of Cats and wholeheartedly works masterfully, with Hudson project it beautifully. Even looking beyond that song, Hudson effectively captures Grizabella’s sadness and loneliness that Grizabella showcases. To me, she’s the only character in the entire movie that has an actually character arc and that us (the viewers) care about.

The large bulk of the supporting players are seasoned / recognizable acting talents that certainly lend their theatrical weight / gravitas to the proceedings. Unfortunately, this is where the majority of the problems that I mentioned above comes into play, with the movie relying on the screen presence of these talents rather than the actual character they are portraying. They all “physically” look the part, but not much “meat on the bone”. Theatrical seasoned veterans of actress Judi Dench (Skyfall and Shakespeare in Love) and actor Ian McKellen (The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Good Liar) play the roles of the wise / esteemed elderly leader Old Deuteronomy (a female role in the movie that was originally played by a male in the stage musical) and the wizen thespian Gus, the theater cat. Both Dench and McKellen are great and definitely have that “old school” theater quality in their presence in Cats, but neither of their characters are quite memorable. Well….maybe Dench’s Old Deuteronomy for sheer physical look (McKellen’s Gus is quite physically good as well), but both are just stock-like characters with no interesting points beyond being the benevolent leader and elder thespian actor. The same can be said (to a lesser degree) for actor / late night talk show host James Corden (Into the Woods and The Late Late Show with James Corden) and actress Rebel Wilson (Pitch Perfect and Isn’t it Romantic) as presented as the more “comedic” individuals of the film, with their roles as Bustopher Jones and Jennyanydots, two rotund cats. Like a lot of their previous works, Corden and Wilson are there for “laughs” and end up doing that in their sum parts, but their visual effects and overall design work for their characters is perhaps the most wonky; rendering Bustopher Jones and Jennyanydots to be the most unrealistic / fake characters in all of Cats.

In the antagonist role, actor Idris Elba (Molly’s Game and The Jungle Book) plays the role of Macavity, the villainous and magical rogue cat that causes trouble during the proceedings of the Jellicle Ball. Like Dench and McKellen, Elba certainly knows on how put on his charm by projecting the right amount of theatrical poise; bringing a sly and wickedly fun to Macavity. His voice is perfect and his physical look of him is fantastic, but there’s not much to him and ends up being a flat-note villain, which is disappointing. I really was hoping that the character was gonna be fleshed out (well all of these talents in their characters), but the movie doesn’t do that within its screenplay and the end result of Cats is the proof of that being screen presence over creative characters.

Somewhere (in the middle of the pack), singer Jason Derulo plays the character role of as Rum Tum Tugger, the rebellious Jellicle cat who loves to be the center of attention. Derulo is perfectly fine in the role and definitely looks the part (the make-up on him is spot on), but there’s not much to him. He’s featured several times throughout the movie, but more in the background after he sings his main song (“The Rum Tum Tugger”). Likewise, other musical sensation singer Taylor Swift plays the role of Bombalurina, a mischievous and confidant female that works for Macavity. She really only has one scene in the movie (singing the song “Macavity: The Mystery Man”) and definitely lends her vocal charm in the song, but that’s about it. Lastly, I do have to admit that actors Robbie Fairchild (Soundtrack and An American in Paris – The Musical) and Laurie Davidson do solid jobs in the respective roles of Munkstrap and Mr. Mistoffelees, the two Jellicles cats that befriend Victoria and show her their ways throughout the night.

The rest of the cast, including actor Ray Winstone (Beowulf and The Departed) as Macavity’s henchmen Growltiger, actor / production designer Steven McRae (The Nutcracker and Stealing Las Vegas) as Skimbleshanks (the Railway cat), actress Mette Towley (Hustlers) as Cassandra, the Les Twins (Laurent and Larry Bourgeois) as Plato and Socrates, and newcomers actor Danny Collins and actress Naoimh Morgan make their debut with the film as characters Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer, two mischievous feline cats, are in more of the minor supporting roles. Like the rest of the cast, these characters are well-acted by the talents behind them, but their characters are just kept to the minimal (i.e. one and done), which (again) is disappointing.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS


The Jellicle cats come out to play and prepare for the Jellicle Ball; singing and dancing their live stories in the movie Cats. Director Tom Hooper latest project takes Andrew Lloyd Weber’s beloved stage musical and translate the story from the theatre to the silver screen; projecting a highly visual induced endeavor of songs and dance throughout. Unfortunately, despite a proven source material, interesting visual concepts, great costumes / make-up, an incredible moving “Memory” scene from Jennifer Hudson, and a star-studded cast, the movie just simply all the right ingredients for quite a showstopper that ultimately ends up being a bland endeavor, with its limited narrative story, a weak screenplay that doesn’t add much creative innovation, bizarre / wonky visual effect imagery, and under utilized characters (and the talents behind them). Personally, this movie was okay-ish, but more on the disappointed side. Yes, the visual look of the movie is quite unique and the essential theatrically boldness is technically there, but the film just lacks substance and proves to lack the potential he could’ve achieved, which is disappointing. Thus, my recommendation for this movie is shaky “iffy choice” and possibly a better “skip it” as the movie doesn’t offer much beyond the actual stage production. It’s not as completely horrible as some are making it out to be, but it’s far from the celebrate musical endeavor it wants to be. In truth, you’re actually better going to see the stage musical instead of this movie. In the end, despite a lot of anticipation of popular musical film adaptation, Cats winds up being beautiful mess of a feature; singing and dancing its way in, for a lack of better terms, a missed opportunity and once again proving (as a cautionary tale) that not all stories need to be translated to the silver screen.

2.7 Out of 5 (Iffy Choice / Skip It)

 

Released On: December 20th, 2019
Reviewed On: December 22nd, 2019

Cats  is 110 minutes long and is rated PG for some rude and suggestive humor

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