A Method Grizabella, a disappointing Macavity and a lot of kitty nuzzling — it’s not a satisfying adaptation, but was that even possible?
Send any friend a story
As a subscriber, you have 10 gift articles to give each month. Anyone can read what you share.
“Did they freak you out?”
That’s what a friend asked me when I came back from “Cats,” the new film adaptation of the musical based on T.S. Eliot’s poems. She was referring to the feline-human hybrids who, thanks to the trailers, had become a low-level national fever dream. I’ll admit that the CGI mélange of fur, fingers, breasts and tails is a bit much to take in at first, and if I hadn’t known it was a musical, I might have wondered if I was looking at Dr. Moreau’s leftovers or the sole survivors of some gene-splicing that went awry.
’Cause London, as seen through the director Tom Hooper’s eyes, is looking awfully postapocalyptic. Streets, homes, milk bars: Everything is so barren you’d swear it was “28 Days Later,” only instead of zombies, there are singing mice and marching cockroaches. There’s also an unseen dog pressing at a door and, by my count, one actual human, who, in the opening frames, tosses a sack into an alley. My immediate thought was that it was a dead kitty, but no, it’s a live kitty named Victoria (Francesca Hayward) who’s been deposited in the alley so she will … starve to death? Be compacted? Chew her way out? The correct answer is: rescued by a guerrilla band of Jellicles. Makes you wonder if it was all just some humanitarian long game.
Ingenue-pale, Victoria gets some shade from the Jellicle street chicks but quickly finds protectors in the form of Munkustrap (Robbie Fairchild) and Mr. Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson). The timing of Victoria’s abandonment is fortunate because this very night one lucky Jellicle will be chosen to ascend to the Heaviside Layer and to “a different Jellicle life.” Victoria doesn’t pause to ask if this is a good thing, but she does reasonably inquire how said cat will be chosen. “By singing a song,” explains Munkustrap.
With that, the implicit motive of “Cats,” the stage show, becomes the explicit engine of “Cats,” the movie. It’s a competition, bitches. Bring your best musical selves. But there’s a problem here. To hunger for the Heaviside Layer means to hunger for a new life, and the felines of “Cats” (it was an issue with the show, too) are feeling pretty good about things. Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson) has vermin at her beck and call. “Puss in Spats” Bustopher Jones (James Corden) has garbage bins ripe for deep-diving. Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer (Danny Collins and Naoimh Morgan) are making a fine, if slightly risky, living plundering homes. Even Gus the Theatre Cat (Ian McKellen) seems A-O.K. with reliving his glory days. Why do any of them need to brave the uncertainty of an afterlife?
The question looms larger with Macavity, who, in the glowering person of Idris Elba, is now the uber-antagonist this show never had and perhaps never knew it needed. As I watched him vaporize one Heaviside aspirant after another, I got an agreeable chill thinking that “Cats” was tearing a bloody page from “Sweeney Todd,” so it was a little disappointing to learn that Macavity isn’t actually killing his victims but depositing them safely on a barge in the Thames. Why? So he can grab the Heaviside Layer for himself, that’s why. But isn’t he already the master — or, if you like the Stringer Bell — of his domain? Able to teleport cats at will and lord it over the entire Jellicle realm? Why would he give all that up for a one-way ticket to outer space?
(A digression: I’ve always been fond of Eliot’s original “Macavity” poem, and I’ve always thought that “Cats” misses its point. The fact that Macavity is never there when the various crimes are happening leaves open the very real possibility that he’s innocent and that his accuser is a delusional obsessive. Who’s to say Macavity even exists?)
One good thing accrues from making Macavity the baddie. It paves the way for his accomplice, Taylor Swift, to arrive like some dirty annunciating angel on a sliver of moon. Swift is in command from the start — sly and sexy and brassy — and she not only puts over the “Macavity” number, she also gives the movie the epinephrine shot it’s been gasping for. (There’s only so much of Victoria’s frail convent-school treble a fella can take.)
The number’s climax, unfortunately, is the already infamous spectacle of Elba looking nekkid as all hell in skintight coffee-colored fur. (Be careful of what you wish for, indeed.) But why hasn’t anyone onscreen noticed that Judi Dench, making her big entrance as Old Deuteronomy, is a dead ringer for Bert Lahr in “The Wizard of Oz”? All those vassal-kitties bowing and kowtowing, and I’m just waiting for her to break into “If I Were Queen of the Forest.” (The “Oz” resonance extends to the chandelier-balloon that carries our winner skyward at film’s end.)
Well, Old Deut may be a theological game-show host, but she’s got ethics, and she isn’t about to put up with Macavity’s nonsense. “I judge a cat by its soul,” she tells him. “You’re a cheat.” For that, she gets disappeared to the same Thames barge, at which point Macavity morphs from Sweeney Todd to Captain Hook and demands that she walk the plank. The only one who can apparate her back to safety is the Jellicles’ magician-intern. This plot development does impart new urgency to the many, many choruses of “Magical Mister Mistoffelees,” but the choruses still keep piling up, and nothing keeps happening.
I’m happy to report that Macavity and his minions are foiled, and Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson), the only character truly in need of a metaphysical makeover, comes forward for her reward. Hudson doesn’t look anything like a faded showgirl-prostitute with years of mileage. On the contrary, she seems like she could clobber every single one of her cat tormentors. But as an actress, Hudson is all in — lurching and crouching and wincing and weeping like a thousand Meg Ryans. (At one bravura juncture, parallel rivulets of snot come trickling out of her nose.) It’s the most Method Grizabella I’ve ever seen and maybe the least compelling. Because why ask Hudson to sing “Memory” and not let her unleash that monster voice? Every time she seems to be digging in for real, she scurries back to a bewildered head tone, and what should be the movie’s musical centerpiece ends — well, I’ll quote Eliot from another context — not with a bang but a whimper.
Anyway, off goes Grizabella, and we’re left with Old Deut sitting atop a lion statue and rather bizarrely choosing this moment to instruct us on the addressing of cats. In the original show, this number at least gets a big choral send-off; in the dry, crackly hands of Dame Judi, it becomes a prissy, self-satisfied catechism. (A cat is not a dog, y’all.)
Is it me, or does all this anticlimactic talk of caviar and potted grouse and salmon paste undercut the show’s redemptive message? I mean, is Old Deut supposed to be the Jellicle Marianne Williamson or the Jellicle Martha Stewart? I was even more confused when she gave Victoria a grandmotherly rub and murmured: “I believe you truly are a Jellicle cat.” Wait, is this what the movie was supposed to be about? Victoria’s coming of age? Doesn’t it turn the whole show into a protracted hazing ritual?
In the spirit of the season, let me grope toward an upside. “Cats” might have been a better movie, but it’s doubtful it would have been a satisfying one, and the experience of watching it is a welcome reassurance that live theater still does some things better than film. Making us believe in humanoid cats is one of them.
Best scene: I’ve never had much patience for Gus the Theatre Cat, but that was until McKellen got his hands on him. It’s a tone poem of pride and shyness and loss, with, yes, stirrings of dementia. Perhaps the best moment comes when Gus, mistakenly believing he’s just generated bolts of lightning, gazes in mild wonder at his own hand.
Best line: Dialogue is now part of the “Cats” universe, but there’s nary a zinger to be found, unless you count some rather obvious cat puns.
Drinking game: A sip of a Black Cat Vodka cocktail every time one kitty sweetly nuzzles another.
I Google so you don’t have to: Henry Irving (1838-1905) and Herbert Beerbohm Tree (1852-1917) were famous English actor-managers of the Victorian era. If Gus did act with them, he would be a singularly old pussy now.
Department of other thoughts:
— Pity is something I’ve never felt for Rebel Wilson — she’s too tough a cookie — but boy, does she struggle to get a laugh here.
— Jason Derulo’s boyish ardor puts his number over. It also places him at the tamer end of the Rum Tum Tugger spectrum, and I was a little surprised to see how easily he bled back into the chorus.
— Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography left me neither fer nor agin. The opening number is decent, and I liked seeing classically trained dancers like Robbie Fairchild given room to show their chops. But the most fun and kinetic turn comes from Steven McRae as Skimbleshanks, who turns a fairly ho-hum Thomas the Tank Engine number into a tap extravaganza. (And leaves you wondering why such a happy-footed employee would want to chuck it all for the Heaviside.)
— The song that Swift co-wrote for the movie includes the line, “You’ll dance with these beautiful ghosts,” which leaves me seriously worried that all the onscreen cats are dead. Is that why the streets are so empty? What’s next? “Sixth Sense: The Musical”?
Take a bow. We got through it.
‘Cats’: Did You See the Movie? Let’s Talk – The New York Times