2.5 stars (out of 4)
No one will ever confuse Cats with an edgy hip-hop musical that chronicles Alexander Hamilton and the American revolution. Hello, kitty? Ever since its debut on the London stage back in 1982, this has been an odd and absurdly melodramatic show in which humans dressed as furry felines sing and dance and plead to be sent off to something called the Heaviside Layer.
And yet the long-in-the-making movie adaptation has been catnip for social media. When the trailer dropped in July, Twitter was filled with phrases like “car crash” and “nightmare fuel.” That’s because Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech, Les Miserables) used peculiar technology to render stars Jennifer Hudson, Judi Dench, James Corden, Jason Derulo, Idris Elba, Rebel Wilson and Taylor Swift with cat-like bodies while leaving their faces human. It all seemed a bit … much.
Now that Cats has finally landed, should skeptics retract their claws? Is Swift the cat’s meow or is it just a cameo? And how many cat puns can be squeezed in one review? Here are the answers to all your burning questions.
1. Just how bad is it?
Not that bad at all! I realize that critique won’t be used in Cats’ advertising campaign, but the musical does indeed have its merits — and is not nearly as disastrous as you feared. The caveat here is that you have some knowledge of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s trippy source material. The story, if you recall, is flimsier than tissue paper and consists of “Jellicle” cats with funky names likes Bombalurina, Rumpleteazer, Jennyanydots and Bustopher Jones busting out nonsensical lyrics like “Jellicle bells that Jellicles ring/Jellicle sharps and Jellicle flats.” But the impeccable showmanship here is captivating — notably, the gorgeous flying-through-the-air choreographed dancing. The spectacle is to be experienced.
2. Wait, what’s the plot?!
Over the course of one night, a tribe of cats in a London alley individually make their case as to why they should ascend to the Heaviside Layer and come back to a new life. Old Deuteronomy (Dench) makes the choice. Daylight breaks. The end. Again, Les Miserables this is not.
3. Will I hate it if I’ve never seen the musical?
Not necessarily, but you’ll like it more if you have seen it — or, at the very least, you’ll give it a longer leash. A brush-up of the music will help as well. If you go in stone-cold, there’s a solid chance you will A. rue your birth and/or B. wonder if your popcorn was laced.
4. Is the digital fur weird?
Yes and no. The professional dancing troupe in the chorus seamlessly did the stray cut strut sans distraction. The same goes for the non-famous faces, such as Francesa Heyword (Victoria the White Cat) and Laurie Davidson (Mister Mistoffelees). They’re impressive and disappear into the roles. But whenever a star appears on screen, it’s all too easy to be consumed with the strange cat-person hybrid effects. No matter that Elba put his all into the role of devilish Macavaity; you can’t look at him and not think “this man is too handsome to have a furry tail.” Corden’s ghoulish Bustopher Jones get-up, meanwhile, will haunt my dreams. A no-name cast isn’t a box-office draw, but this is the rare case in which familiarity breeds contempt.
5. Blah, blah, blah. How big is Swift’s role?
If you get a decent-sized soda beforehand and make a quickie bathroom run about 70 minutes into the film, you will miss Swift’s entire appearance. She gets exactly one production number, in which her Bombalurina sprinkles catnip from a bedazzled can and “introduces” Elba’s character via “Macavity the Mystery Cat.” Exit Swift and her faux British accent. BTW, she does not sing the Golden Globe-nominated, Oscar-snubbed “Beautiful Ghosts” onscreen.
6. Are ghosts beautiful?
7. Who are Rey’s parents?
8. What’s the big showstopper? Be specific.
And I’m telling you: Hudson delivers again. Her Grizabella the Glamour Cat — who’s essentially on the eighth of her nine lives — belts out a stirring rendition of the ballad “Memory.” Even if you can’t stomach the other 99 percent of Cats, this moment will surely send chills down your spine. She’s that good.
9. Could she get another Best Supporting Actress Oscar win?
Not a chance. She’s been snubbed by every awards’ group and it would be unprecedented for her to win two Oscars for two musicals (after Dreamgirls) in a span of 15 years. The award is also Laura Dern’s to lose. That said, I can’t stress enough: Hudson’s performance is magical.
10. Great, I’ll YouTube the clip in a few months. Any other selling points?
Yup! The running time is under two hours. Purr-fection.
Cats opens in theaters Friday, December 20