Every generation needs its baptism by fire.
I refer, of course, to one’s first experience of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical “Cats,” based on T.S. Eliot’s 1939 poetry collection titled “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.” Perhaps some experienced “Cats” in the fur on Broadway, where it ran from 1982 to 2000 (plus a 2016 revival), while others were exposed to the whiskers-and-leg-warmers jamboree via VHS tape or community theater production. Nevertheless, it seems that many younger millennials and Gen Z have somehow escaped the “Cats” phenomenon, which director Tom Hooper seeks to correct with his movie version of “Cats,” covered in a fine digital fur.
If you have no prior familiarity with the wordy, purring absurdism of “Cats,” it’ll just hit harder, and you’ll likely have a lot of questions. First of all, what is a Jellicle cat? No one has ever adequately explained what a Jellicle cat is, despite a whole song describing Jellicle cats. According to the lyrics, Jellicle cats are blind when they’re born, can see in the dark, can look at a king and do various other activities that pretty much any cat can do. But you’d better believe Jellicle cats both can and do, as they sing that at you near constantly.
Other questions the film inspires: Why are some cats wearing large fur coats and some even wearing zippered fur onesies with human clothes underneath, over another digital fur covering? Also, are those dancing cockroaches with human heads? And finally: Just what is the plot of this film? The truth is, there’s very little plot, despite the heroic expositional efforts of Munkustrap (Robbie Fairchild). The gist is this: The Jellicles have a ball once a year, wherein the cats sing about themselves, and what their whole deal is (doing magic, being old, being sad, being sexy, being mischievous, being sexy and mischievous), and then Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) picks one to have a new life, reincarnated in the chandelier hot air balloon in the sky.
Francesca Hayward, the ballet dancer making her film debut as Victoria, the white cat brought into the Jellicle world, is sincerity and sweetness personified, whether nuzzling magical Mr. Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson) or reaching out a kind hand (yes, hand, horrifyingly) to Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson, always reliable for an emotional ballad). Rebel Wilson and James Corden tackle their roles with gusto, and Taylor Swift brings some much-needed star power to the screen. The less said about Idris Elba’s Macavity the better.
Unfortunately, the film doesn’t have an ounce of the bite or sex appeal of the 1998 video version of the stage production. All due respect to Jason Derulo, who croons an enthusiastic “Milk!,” but he could never eclipse John Partridge’s preening, thrusting performance of Rum Tum Tugger.
But there’s a larger existential question that looms over this production, which is just, Why? Why do “Cats” like this, and especially, why do “Cats” like this now? Despite the technological magic (or is it?) of digital fur covering, the film is an earnest and straightforward re-creation of the show on film, replete with so much sweet ’80s synth on the soundtrack, but not a single wink or interrogation or sideways glance at the enjoyably weird and corny material. It’s kind of endearing in its earnestness, but this badly needs a campy edge, which Hooper has inexplicably sanded down.
Everything is one-note in “Cats,” from the pixelated haze to the emotional tenor. There are a few moments of inadvertent entertainment to be found, but it turns out that in this case, leg warmers have more life than digital fur.