Has the moon lost her memory? Cats has wondered that for nearly 40 years. Now a new question has pawed its way into the catty conversation: Have movie producers lost their sense of good judgment? The star-studded but strange and oddly empty new film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s megamusical suggests they have. Un-meow-stakably.
If the powers-that-be believed that surrounding singing felines in “digital fur” technology, as it’s been called, plus motion capture and CGI effects, would make for a transcendent experience, the film lacks persuasive proof – even with the likes of James Corden, Judi Dench, Idris Elba, Jennifer Hudson, Ian McKellen and Taylor Swift. They’ll all in fine form posing as humanoid pussycats and purring slight but earwormy showtunes, under the direction of Tom Hooper (Les Miserables). Still, the film is a weird, busy and sometimes cringe-y spectacle crying out desperately for a lick of charm.
And some thrills. On stage, that came on occasion courtesy of dynamite dancing, choreographed originally by Gillian Lynne and brushed up in the 2016 Broadway revival by Hamilton’s Andy Blankenbuehler. The stage is made to showcase hoofing – ballet, tap, modern, more. On film, the fancy and athletic footwork is chopped up and loses cumulative, big-picture oomph. Without that there’s not much to savor since the plot wouldn’t fill a tiny tin of Fancy Feast. It never would.
Drawn from T.S. Elliot’s 1939 poetry collection, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, the musical – first seen in London in 1981 and a year later on Broadway – is essentially a revue. At a game-changing gathering, the so-called Jellicle Ball, a parade of pussycats vie to be granted the gift of a new life. The film, written by Hooper and Lee Hall and opening Dec. 20, follows that outline faithfully, while expanding the role of the tossed-away Victoria (Francesca Hayward, a Royal Ballet dancer) and shifting the setting. It’s gone from a modest junkheap to an elaborate feline world where cheeky “Catsino” and “Pipurr Heidsieck” signs loom amid London’s Big Ben. Wide-eyed, sweet-voiced Victoria carries a new song, “Beautiful Ghosts,” about yearning, by Lloyd Webber and Hudson.
Among cats competing for a second shot is seemingly lazy Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson), whose number gets a Busby Berkeley treatment that falls flat. And there’s the preening rocker Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo), chubby Bustopher Jones (Corden), theatrical Gus (McKellen) and railway-obsessed Skimbleshanks (Steven McRae). Also on hand: Vampy Bombalurina (Swift), villainous Macavity (Elba), magical Mr. Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson) and genial Munkestrap (Robbie Fairchild), who supplies exposition. Overseeing this litter, which spends most of the time on two hind legs, and the selection is wise Old Deuteronomy (Dench), who, alas, looks like a cross between the Cowardly Lion and the CBS News Sunday Morning logo. The instant that outcast Grizabella (Hudson), a former glamour cat who’s been around the block and faded, slinks in and belts “Memory,” who’ll get a new life is no longer a question.
The fate of the movie Cats remains a question. Could it become a hit, as the show did on Broadway, where it ran for 18-plus years? Time will tell. After the movie, I immediately listened to Betty Buckley, who won a Tony for playing Grizabella, sing the show’s big number. I’ll let that “Memory” live again.