Review: Me-ouch! Film version of 'Cats' a Deuteronomy disaster

Adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's long-running stage musical coughs up a furball

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

Let's start with the positive: the costumes and makeup are pretty good? In a weird, body-horror, human-feline-dysmorphia kind-of-way, the characters in "Cats" certainly come close to a particular vision of, well, catpeople?

But that's the best that can be said about "Cats," the baffling film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's popular stage musical, an astonishing misfire on every other conceivable level. Forget worst movie of the year: "Cats" is the biggest disaster of the decade, and possibly thus far in the millennium. It's "Battlefield Earth" with whiskers.    

Taylor Swift in "Cats."

All but the most fervent of Webber's fans will be thrown into fits of alternating laughter and befuddlement by Oscar-winning co-writer and director Tom Hooper's ("The King's Speech") cinematic calamity, which starts low and keeps sinking to new depths. Luckily, those fans number in the millions, and could make "Cats" a breakout holiday success. Hey, even "The Greatest Showman" found its fanbase.

But at least "The Greatest Showman" had a throughline and a story of human redemption, however misguided it was. "Cats" tosses its audience into an unrecognizable world where cats communicate with one another by constantly singing songs about themselves in the third person, a never-ending world of introductions (aren't these cats tired of hearing these songs again and again?) where characters cease being developed once their final chorus hits.

Among those donning catsuits for a shot at the Jellicle Ball — if you're confused by the use of the word "Jellicle," don't worry, the movie never sufficiently explains it but goes on to repeat it more times than Jack yells "Rose!" in "Titanic" — are Rebel Wilson, Idris Elba, Judi Dench, James Corden, Ian McKellen, Ray Winstone and Jason Derulo, all scraping some version of bottom in cat ears and tails.   

Noted cat fanatic Taylor Swift shows up late in the movie and acquits herself better than most in a number where as Bombalurina she descends on a moonbeam prop, sprinkles catnip over her fellow kitties and wears high heels on her cat feet, for some reason. (There are bigger fish to fry than the question of her heels — much higher up the list would be how come some of the cats are able to disappear at will? — but it's a question nonetheless.) 

Meanwhile Jennifer Hudson might add a Razzie to go next to her Oscar for her performance as down-on-her-luck street cat Grizabella, who over-emotes her way through an unearned, inordinately dramatic rendition of the show's signature tune, "Memory." She puts the hiss in boo hiss.

The story — in the back alleys and empty theaters of London one night, a group of cats compete for the chance to be reborn at the hands of Old Deuteronomy (Dench), the matriarch of the film's cat world, while the devious Macavity (Elba) attempts to rig the odds in his favor through nefarious means — is in need of a narrator or someone to explain to the audience what's going on, or why we should care. A playful, fourth-wall breaking song about the nature of cats comes way too late in the game to make a difference; in the original musical, the fourth wall is broken much earlier.

The arrangements of Webber's tunes don't have any swing or brass to them; most are tepid, and even "Memory" lacks its knockout punch. The scale of the sets and the cats' relation to them is constantly shifting and it's never clear how big or small they're meant to be. There isn't a box of kitty litter big enough for this production.  

"Cats" does do a sufficient job of sifting through cat-related puns to beat those who have their claws sharpened for it to the punch; phrases such as "look what the cat dragged in" and "cat got your tongue?" are taken, so they can't necessarily be used against the film. But here's one they didn't get to, and the one that sums up the experience best: "Cats" is a real dog. Woof.




Rated PG: for peril, some thematic elements and rude humor

Running time: 120 minutes