The show, as you know by now, was a hit, winning the Tony for Best Musical and earning poet T.S. Eliot a posthumous Tony nomination. (The musical, sung through without dialog, relies on Eliot’s collection Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats not just as its source material, but also for its songs' lyrics.) Reviewing the show for The New York Times, Frank Rich wrote: “[I]t's a musical that transports the audience into a complete fantasy world that could only exist in the theater and yet, these days, only rarely does. Whatever the other failings and excesses, even banalities, of Cats, it believes in purely theatrical magic, and on that faith it unquestionably delivers.”
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Nearly four decades later, Oscar winner Tom Hooper has helmed a long-awaited—and star-studded—film adaptation. As he did with 2012’s Les Misérables, Hooper has brought this international musical behemoth to the big screen, with the help of celebrated actors Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, and Idris Elba, plus pop stars like Taylor Swift and Jason Derulo. (I suppose Jennifer Hudson, who didn’t win American Idol but did nab an Oscar for Dreamgirls, falls into both categories.) So how does this movie musical compare with the stage version? Does it transport the audience to a fantasy world that could only exist in the medium of film? Does it deliver on the promise of movie magic, in particular the “digital fur technology” its creatives have boasted so much about in publicity before the release? If you were a part of the collective internet freakout when the first trailer for the movie dropped in July, expressing what could only be described as international confusion and repulsion, you may not be surprised by what I’m about to tell you: Cats is awful.
It has been a while since a big-budget, star-packed studio film has felt like such a disaster from start to finish. Befuddling, confusing, deeply ugly, and incredibly un-fun, I surely won’t be the only critic to recommend Cats be put down immediately. What has for decades been something of a pop culture joke is now an even more wackadoo entertainment event. It’s almost as if Hooper and company were tasked with making the worst movie they could conceive of, that it was one epic troll—that could be the nicest thing I could say about it, that they have achieved something.
It’s not like the source material isn’t already bananas. Imagine: Grown-ass adults, coming together to make a stage musical about cats starring humans, scurrying and prancing across the stage for two and a half hours and singing wacky songs as part of a revue that culminates in the one ballad that everyone (even those who haven’t seen the show) actually knows. “Memory” has inarguably had a larger life than the show itself as a contemporary torch-song standard. (Barbra Streisand has recorded her own version, as has former Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger, who also sang the song on the West End when she played the role of Grizabella in a revival of the show.) For most people, the wait for that recognizable song is a long one; for anyone sitting down in a movie theater, the wait is slightly less long—the film runs two hours—but no less arduous. On the way to the finale, Cats requires audiences to sit through slapstick numbers by Rebel Wilson and James Cordon (both playing cats whose main traits are their weight and laziness) and deeply serious dirge-like songs sung by Dench and McKellen. There’s also a ham-fisted plot in which Idris Elba’s Macavity—a supervillain cat modeled on Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis, Moriarty—kidnaps the featured cats one by one in his own attempt to earn reincarnation.