When the trailer for Tom Hooper’s CATS came out, the reaction was immediate. This was some weird-looking shit. At best. But the 2019 film itself is somehow far, far more peculiar than anything the trailer hinted at. That is no small feat, especially when you consider Hooper’s track record and the impressive cast.
Yet here we are. As one who doesn’t like to fault a picture for the sake of aesthetics, it is impossible to overlook just how goddamn wacky CATS is. The musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber was no fantasy of gravity, but at least those productions knew that a lighter hand made for better entertainment.
We’re introduced to Victoria the White Cat, played by Royal Ballet principal dancer Francesca Hayward. She is discarded in London and meets the streetwise Jellicles. She runs into Mr. Mistofelees (Laurie Davidson) and a few others and starts her journey to understanding the Jellicle Ball, a ritual for cats who want to be reincarnated via the Heaviside Layer.
Victoria meets other cats in the quarter. Macavity the Mystery Cat (Idris Elba) is, uh, catnapping others and wants to ascend via the Jellicle Ball. Other shrewder cats, like Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench), oppose him. This creates a problem.
CATS has never been the most structured of musicals and the film follows the same bent, with Hooper and Lee Hall’s screenplay offering just the starkest of connective tissue. More cats are catnapped in the movie than in the musical, while some have been altered significantly. Gone is Mistofelees’ fulsome swagger, as he’s just an insecure husk of a tom now.
The cast is impressive. Taylor Swift is Bombalurina. She sings an ode to Macavity atop a moon while sprinkling catnip over the cat crush below. Catnip might be the sort of thing required to enjoy this movie, but Taylor definitely didn’t bring enough for everybody.
Speaking of things you can’t unsee, CATS is among the most unusual films in recent memory. This is because the look of each cat is just strange. There are scenes in which cats open their cat suits to divulge other cat suits. Sometimes the appearance of a nude cat is shocking, while sometimes it’s the pants that seem most off-putting.
You can see CATS becoming a kind of camp classic, but it’s not an experience one wants to repeat often. Hooper’s film isn’t comically bad enough to sail by on irony. It does somehow take itself seriously. It is a cataclysm of alluring performers acting like alluring performers pretending to be cats, warbling and cavorting through a bizarrely-proportioned space that frankly shouldn’t have seen the light of day.