by Christie Robb
People say that you’re either a cat person or a dog person. I’m a cat person, but definitely not a Cats person. But if you are, there’s a lot to enjoy in the new film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1981 musical based on poems by T.S. Eliot.
How else could you possibly get tickets to see a show with this cast? Taylor Swift. Idris Elba. Rebel Wilson. James Corden. Jennifer Hudson. How else can you watch a feline Dame Judi Dench curl up convincingly in a basket? Or glimpse Sir Ian McKellen lap from a bowl of milk?
A movie is a very egalitarian way to enjoy a Broadway musical. This one is about an assemblage of cats who have gathered together under the full moon to decide which one of them will be chosen to be reborn into a new life. Their best life. They pitch their case by singing the song of themselves. There’s very little in the way of traditional narrative structure although director Tom Hooper (Les Misérables) does tinker around with the play a bit to try to tease one out. It’s more like a musical revue designed around a central theme.
Initially concerned about falling into the uncanny valley of CG feline effects on the actors’ familiar faces, after some early creepy moments I got used to it. The realistic tail twitches and subtle changes in the angle of an ear serve to give additional cues as to the interior life of a cat that mere facial expressions alone can’t provide. (The opportunity to see emotional reactions through closeups is another advantage of a screen version.)
Occasionally the feline illusion is broken (most often by Swift and Elba) and instead of seeing a cat you are confronted with a dancing furry naked person with Barbie-doll genitalia. But most of the time, it works.
Wilson and Corden are amusing. Watching Francesca Hayward (principal ballerina at the Royal Ballet) dance the role of Victoria is a delight. But the true star of this show is Jennifer Hudson as Grizabella, a former “glamour cat” now old and suffering through hard times.
As in Les Mis, Hooper has his cast sing live, and it is Hudson’s performance of the signature song “Memory” that far outshines every other musical number here. It’s likely what you’ll be humming as you walk out of the theatre, and the one thing you’ll most remember about these Cats.