TWO AND A HALF STARS Street cats perform in the hope they'll be given a new life from their leader, Old Deuteronomy.
Taylor Swift, Jennifer Hudson
Singing and dancing cats. It was an odd concept when Andrew Lloyd Webber first got the idea of putting the poems of T.S. Elliot to music, then staging the results. 30-plus years later, it’s no less odd. All the same, Cats became an instant sensation and has been running in packed out theatres ever since.
The Jellicles are a clowder of street cats who live in an abandoned theatre in London. They’re joined by a newcomer, Victoria, on the night their leader Old Deuteronomy will choose who gets rewarded with a new life. However those in competition disappear one by one as the magically mischievous mog McCavity spirits them to a barge in the middle of the Thames. He intends to be the only cat standing when the choice is made. Meanwhile Grizabella, a former glamour-puss turned outcast, gets to sing the show’s best song. Old Deuteronomy is watching.
Cats has generally been sung in leotards, the cast in heavy make up. Whiskers protrude, fur is a feature, tails are stuck on the back, bodies padded and smoothed so lumpy genitalia is not a distraction. In Tom Hooper’s lavish production, spandex gives way to CGI as the entire cast are reanimated as near-cartoon recreations of themselves - the faces remain, little else does. Consequently this cast of cats stalk and prowl with feline intensity; ears twitching, tails bouncing, genitalia smoothed. While it can be unsettling (critics have been spectacularly unkind), is it any more peculiar than a human preening in a catsuit?
I’d say not. What is peculiar is how tepid it is for a movie billed as a magical musical event. Much of that falls back to Lloyd Webber and his rather ordinary sung-through style. If you’re not a rusted on fan, and you remove Memory, there’s little else to hold your attention. It’s fair to say that Hooper’s digital styling is a barrier though not in the nightmarish ways many have claimed. It is certainly a distraction that frees your mind to land on elsewhere, like the questionable singing talents of Judi Dench, Ian McKellan, Rebel Wilson and Taylor Swift. A pop star she may be, a sinewy, all-singing, all-dancing cat she aint. Or why some cats are dressed and others not. And why is Rebel's cat in a cat-suit?
Yet for all the quibbles, there’s still Jennifer Hudson (DREAMGIRLS). Forget Elaine Paige, Hudson’s powerhouse performance has redefined Memory with gut-churning intensity. It is spectacular (and for the record, was sung live (not lip-synched) some thirty times until they got it just right). Just as the song saved this weird, fur-ball of a musical, Hudson saves Hooper’s CATS from total obscurity. Because for all the digital twitching and swirling from an A-grade cast, It takes a lot to like the daftness of Cats. So the real question for those asking is not where did the film go wrong (it didn’t), but why was it made at all?