Review: ‘Cats,’ Nothing But Cats, Really, A Lot of Cats, Now and Forever

dfn_cats_poster_ver3_300In the big-screen adaptation of the stage musical, directed by Tom Hooper, Francesca Hayward is the new cat in town.

Memories are made of this, the wise old cat said.

Cats
The film opens in theaters throughout Dallas, Fort Worth and surrounding cities on Friday, December 20, 2019, via Universal Pictures.

The opening scenes of Tom Hooper’s big-screen adaptation of the incredibly popular stage musical fairly well shout out, ‘Look at me! I’m a movie!’

Before the audience can settle into their seats, a cat in a bag is dumped ingloriously into a ragged neighborhood in London, populated entirely by cats who all stand upright, like highly-trained ballet dancers, poised on their hind legs and ready to dance and/or sing and/or weep at a moment’s notice.

For a viewer, such as myself, with only a nodding acquaintance with the stage musical, it’s all rather disorienting, especially when coupled with several whirling dance sequences that are practically cut to shreds with quick camera movements, intensely frenetic editing, and constantly-shifting, highly stylized, fantasy London street ‘scapes. Like director Hooper’s all-singing film version of Les Miserables (2015), his new film unfurls from song to song without much expository dialogue.

Unlike his earlier film, though, which communicated its drama with strident music and pained and/or furious expressions on the human faces of its characters, the cast of Cats is composed entirely of humans masquerading as cats. Initially, this is rather distracting, largely because of the film medium itself.

As opposed to a stage production, in which the audience observes the action from a distance, thereby introducing a certain remove that the dancing, singing, or acting must overcome, the film medium is naturally geared toward a greater variety of perspectives. Hooper and his longtime film editor Melanie Oliver have chosen to present the initial sequences — a good chunk of 20-30 minutes or so — with the evident intention of dazzling the audience.

Instead, it detaches the viewer; we become spectators who can appreciate the beauty of what is unfolding, without much opportunity to become more closely involved with the characters or ostensible driving narrative. In this portion of the film, James Corden, Rebel Wilson, Jason Derulo, Ray Winstone, and Idris Elba are introduced, along with songs on which they take the lead. (Elba plays McCavity, the villain.)

Things take a far more effective turn when the showcase sequence arrives: Jennifer Hudson singing “Memory.” Hooper and company stop all attempts to distract the audience and simply sit back and relax, which is entirely appropriate, since Hudson’s version is stunning to hear and experience.

The quietude continues as the new cat in town, Victoria (Francesca Hayward), sings “Beautiful Ghosts,” a new song composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Taylor Swift. From that point onward, the film becomes much more manageable for newbies, as cats portrayed by Swift, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen take their turns in the spotlight.

Throughout all the musical numbers, the splendid production design provides a measure of distraction, even if the dominant musical style — mainstream pop songs that I can only describe as ‘Broadway musical’ — is not something I prefer listening to for nearly two hours. (“Memory” gets a couple of reprises, which helps; even I know that’s a great song.)

Summing up: It’s all carefully-delivered and measured spectacle, which I can admire, but not truly appreciate.

For more information about the film, visit the official site.

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