Quick Change Reviews: Cats (Movie)
The relationship that you’ll have with the Cats movie is very much like a human relationship you have with a cat. If you aren’t much of a Cats person, then you’re probably better off catching Star Wars and then going home to walk your dog.
When you first see a cat; be it sat on the wall as you walk to work, or on a sidetable as you enter a friend’s house, you make the initial eye contact and plea; “please like me.” You are absolutely desperate to become the best of friends and form a lifelong bond. The movie is a little like that, and as a fan of musical theatre (spoiler: if you’re not a fan of musical theatre, join the dog people in screen number 8) you are desperate to enjoy the film.
Tom Hooper’s reimagination of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s iconic stage show based on T.S Eliot’s poems, absolutely delivers exactly what it promises. It is a glorious feast for the eyes. Set in a gritty and slightly dystopian London, our cats prowl through littered sidestreets, neon-lit milk bars and across rusty railway tracks, toward the Egyptian cabaret club where they are set to perform at the Jellicle ball where one will be rewarded by the mighty Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) with a new life. The detail is exquisite, with every feline feature captured, from the wide-eyed and cautious blinks to the delicate yet telling tail swish. With human facial features and much performed on two legs, the cats are really striking if only you allow yourself to believe and enjoy.
In this star-laden production, each cat is given the opportunity to perform and tell their story and why they are deserving to start over. Victoria (Francesca Hayward) is abandoned and comes across the Jellicles - essentially a group of street cats - as they prepare their pieces. Performed with glorious elegance and simply beautiful curiosity, Hayward is sublime. As a trained ballerina, her routines bought poised depth to a cat who carries the values of the show that is so focused on second chances, and the charm of being a dreamer. With Victoria we meet Gus (Ian McKellen), an old theatre cat who looks back with bittersweet memories of his time on stage, Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson) a seemingly lazy cat who directs elaborate routines with the cockroaches and mice she keeps hostage as her performers, and the fat gentleman, Bustopher Jones (James Corden), who enjoys the finer things in life. In perhaps the most bizarre X Factor round of auditions, each cat shows their prowess to elaborate on their real names rather than the one that humans call them by.
These telling secrets are gleefully accompanied by choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler, that fuses the sensual lustre of hip hop for the womanising Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo) and the high energy of tap with ginger tabby, Skimbleshanks (Steven McRae) as he crosses the railways of London. The wonder of Blankenbuerhler’s choreography is non-stop, and with credit to the boundless talent of an ensemble pushed to their very limit as performers from acrobatics to ballet to tap. Every movement is delightfully precise and tells us more about the character and its innermost feelings. Opening number ‘Jellicle Songs For Jellicle Cats’ is mystifying and brooding, as each cat runs through the qualities needed to survive as a cat. Lean cats are assured and alluring, the larger cats carry their weight with slow padding and the young cats dazzle with their boundless, fidgety energy - in particular the devious twins Cassandra (Mette Towley) and Growltiger (Ray Winstone).
The beauty of Cats is that there is little to no plot. This is a story based on the desires of cats who crave a better life, you meet them briefly and are left to wish for them. Elaborated on oh so slightly by Macavity (Idris Elba), who is seen as the “bad guy”. Wish his devilish green eyes luminous on “Wanted” posters, he is feared and wanted for kidnapping his competitors to win the prize for himself. Bombalurina (Taylor Swift) introduces Macavity with a seductive and jazzy number in his tribute, as she assists with his ploy. It is left to Victoria and our young hero, Mr. Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson), as well as a little bit of hope and magic to find the missing cats as they are held hostage on the Thames, and bring back them back. As Old Deuteronomy returns to the ball to crown her winner, it is Victoria who introduces Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson), an old show cat who has since lost her way and been hostage to poverty. Performing the most iconic number, ‘Memory’, with power and gusto, her character is to be marvelled with the emotions it stirs.
The musical numbers are what hold this production together. Each has a soul and heart, with fantastic, fulfilling orchestration and lyrics that capture the essence of their characters and the story they wish to tell, be them cheeky or glamorous or mischievous. They are delivered with absolute belief that stays with you long after the film finishes. In particular, it is Victoria’s song ‘Beautiful Ghosts’ that is most striking. As the Jellicle ball represents her coming-of-age in leaving her youth behind and standing on her own before becoming part of a family. There are very touching and poignant moments of tenderness between the cats.
No doubt, as a story, it’s weak, of course it is. It always has been. It’s a musical about cats and nothing more. There are moments that wobble, where vocals are stretched to breaking point and imagery is confused by the sheer scale of the production. At times, it takes a blink to readjust and remember to not over-complicate or question the eccentricity. Cats is bold and it is risky, and it won’t be for everybody. The obvious jokes “cat got your tongue?” and humorous moments fall flat, and the dialogue is simply to bridge the fact that unfortunately not many audiences enjoy sung-through musicals, and of course the CGI fur has caused quite a stir. But in order to fully explore Hooper’s world, you must sit back, relax and free your imagination.
Allow yourself to join the Jellicle cats and follow their journey, and you never know what you might learn. “I never knew I’d love this world they let me in to.”