By all accounts, “Cats” is a critical and commercial flop with a Rotten Tomatoes score hovering around 20 percent and a devastating opening weekend, bringing in only about $10 million worldwide. This comes as no surprise given that the first trailer, released in July, was met with almost universal disdain. The wildly unsuccessful attempt to turn A-list celebrities into cats with the use of “digital fur technology” has been the subject of countless Twitter memes.
Worse, its Dec. 20 release was heralded by a flood of incredulous reviews from critics that are as entertaining as the film itself, if not more. At this point, the best “Cats” can hope for is that its so-bad-it’s-good reputation will draw in a new audience at midnight screenings, joining the ranks of cult classics like “The Room” and “Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
For those not in the know, “Cats” is an adaptation of an equally bizarre 1982 musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, which is in turn based on “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” a series of whimsical poems by T. S. Eliot. The plot of “Cats” — “plot” used loosely here — revolves around what I can only describe as a feline death cult, the so-called “jellicle cats.” Each year, the cats compete in a talent show where the winning prize is death. Or, more accurately, Old Deuteronomy (the matriarch, played by a befuddled-looking Judi Dench) chooses one cat to send to the Heaviside Layer, where they will be reborn. What happens on-screen is a bizarre ritual that involves the chosen cat hurtling up into the sun aboard a flying chandelier. This is one of many poorly defined plot points that director Tom Hooper (“Les Miserables”) calls upon the audience to overlook.
For better or for worse, Hooper’s adaptation is mostly faithful to the original musical. He does make one significant change, however (aside from making the characters much less pleasant to look at): Rather than breaking the fourth wall, as Lloyd Webber freely did in the musical, Hooper introduces an audience surrogate — Victoria, played by Francesca Hayward of the Royal Ballet.
The film begins with Victoria’s sudden arrival into the world of the jellicle cats when she is unceremoniously dumped down a flight of stairs in a sack, apparently left to die by her former owners. Within moments, she is surrounded by a pack of cats who emerge from the shadows and perform a mostly incomprehensible song about what it means to be a jellicle cat. Victoria looks equal parts horrified and entranced throughout, which is about how I felt myself.
All of this is mostly an excuse for the real conceit of the show, which is two or so hours of ludicrously named cats introducing themselves through song and dance. Unfortunately, few of the celebrities that make up the cast are dancers, much fewer accomplished singers, which makes for a rather lackluster show carried by a talented ensemble.
There are few performances in this film that can be considered “good,” but some are enjoyable. Hayward is appropriately wide-eyed and graceful as Victoria, although it seems unlikely that she will have a second shot at a film career after this travesty. Ian McKellan appears to be having a good time, although I will never be unable to see the otherwise renowned and dignified actor lapping milk from a bowl. Laurie Davidson is charming as the magician Mr. Mistoffelees, while Robbie Fairchild is utterly invested in the role of Munkustrap — his face journey throughout is potentially the most dynamic part of the film. Idris Elba delivers a delightfully hammy performance as the villainous Macavity. Judi Dench looks confused throughout, as if she had accidentally wandered onto the set of “Cats” thinking it was a different, better movie.
All this comes to a crescendo when Jennifer Hudson performs “Memory” as Grizabella the Glamour cat, an outcast (implied to be a cat prostitute) who has lost the beauty of her youth and wants to sing about it. Of course, Grizabella is chosen to ascend to the Heaviside Layer, at last finding acceptance among the jellicle cats. Hudson is an immense talent, but the scene was far from a tear-jerker, unless you count my tears of suppressed laughter. The camera refuses to stray away from Hudson’s fur-and-snot-covered face for almost the entire duration, and Hudson’s tremulous rendition is a low point in her musical career. I wasn’t able to muster much sympathy for Grizabella, but it was a shame to see Hudson so misused. At the very least, someone could have gotten her a tissue.
“Cats” is by no means a good film, but there’s something magical about a movie where every choice made was the wrong one and where every poor choice was the most entertaining possibility. From a critical standpoint, there is very little good to be said about “Cats.” At the box office, “Cats” is an unmitigated disaster. But from my theater seat, it was the spectacle of a lifetime. What could be more authentic to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s outlandish vision?