“Cats,” the adaptation of the popular Broadway musical, stars Taylor Swift, James Corden, Rebel Wilson, Jason Derulo, and several other big-name celebrities — but its famous cast does little to save the film, which is disturbing, cringey, and oddly joyless all at once.
The movie focuses on a group of cats called Jellicles — who walk, talk, sing, and dance — as they introduce themselves to the audience and prepare to send one of their own to a new life in the Heaviside Layer, an afterlife of sorts. While that may seem like an oversimplification of the plot, there’s really not much else driving the movie, save for an evil cat named Macavity (Idris Elba) who wants to be the “Jellicle choice” and make it to the Heaviside Layer.
Even though a lot of work clearly went into “Cats,” it’s still an overblown and unsettling disaster of a movie.
“Cats” was written by the musical theater legend Andrew Lloyd Webber, who’s also responsible for shows like “Phantom of the Opera” and “Starlight Express,” which focuses on anthropomorphic trains (yes, really). It’s one of the longest-running shows on Broadway and was an instant hit when it premiered on London’s West End in the 1970s.
For the film adaptation, the “Les Misérables” filmmaker Tom Hooper stepped in to direct. Hooper’s 2012 adaptation of the classic “Les Mis” was criticized upon its release for its frequency of close-ups and out-of-touch casting — something that maybe should have been a red flag for “Cats” producers.
Look, there are few good moments in “Cats.” What was already an over-the-top and absurd stage musical doesn’t do much better as a film adaptation. And even though most of the actors are trying their best (the breakout star Francesca Hayward especially deserves a shoutout), it’s Hudson, Swift, and Derulo who make the film worth watching.
As Grizabella, a former “glamour cat” who’s implied to have lost her way after turning to sex work (I’m not kidding), Hudson does an excellent job of looking forlorn and abandoned. Though the snot and tears running down her cat face for most of the film can get distracting, Hudson is magnetic as Grizabella, and her show-stopping rendition of the iconic second-act ballad “Memory” is positively mesmerizing.
As for Swift and Derulo, they’re unexpectedly the high points of the film. Swift was fresh off of her “Reputation” tour when she began filming, and it shows — she gives a self-assured and skillful performance as Bombalurina, a haughty and beautiful ginger cat who sprinkles catnip over the rest of the Jellicles and dances in glittery heels.
Swift’s song, “Macavity the Mystery Cat,” is a rollicking, jazzy tune that instantly became stuck in my head, and even though she’s in the film for only 20 minutes or so, Swift is definitely one of the standouts.
And Derulo is perhaps the perfect choice for Rum Tum Tugger, a macho and virile cat whose song, “The Rum Tum Tugger,” is filled with what can only be described as big d— energy — interesting, considering Derulo’s genitals appear to have been digitally removed from the final cut of the film. But the singer surprisingly nails his British accent, and like Swift he is a talented dancer too.
Other honorable mentions include James Corden and Rebel Wilson, who make the most of their limited screen time as the dandy cat Bustopher Jones and the lazy feline Jennyanydots.
While there are numerous problematic moments in “Cats” to discuss, it might be easiest to start with the biggest two.
Filmmakers clearly thought they had something special with the “digital fur technology” that’s used on the actors in the movie to make them appear more cat-like. But for some inexplicable reason, the cats in “Cats” still have human faces, hands, and feet — despite sporting CGI ears, whiskers, tails, and fur.
The effect of this supposedly cutting-edge technology is, in a word, nauseating. The cats aren’t quite cats, but they’re definitely not humans, and while the male cats’ genitals have been digitally removed, the female cats still retain curves that are suggestive of human breasts, for some reason.
Coupled with the fact that the actors writhe and prance about like actual cats, the bizarre CGI used on the actors becomes all the more unsettling.
But perhaps most disturbing of all is the fact that “Cats” is somehow …. more sexually charged than anticipated, especially for a movie about singing felines.
In addition to the CGI that highlights the outline of every actor’s body (excluding genitalia but not breasts), there’s an undercurrent of sexual energy that courses throughout the movie.
Whether it’s Victoria (Francesca Hayward) having a brief flirtation with Munkustrap (Robbie Fairchild), or the Mick Jagger-esque Rum Tum Tugger flirting and gyrating his hips as he sings in a musical number that can only be described as “horny,” “Cats” is filled with surprising moments of sexuality that, quite frankly, left a bad taste in my mouth.
I tried hard to give “Cats” a chance. Even though I’m not a huge fan of the original musical, I’m a theater kid at heart and have a special fondness for cheesy Broadway shows.
But “Cats” can’t quite figure out what it wants to do — it oscillates between moments of pure, farcical camp and overblown earnestness too many times to be called self-aware. It also lacks the pure, lighthearted energy that would make it a campy, fun watch for certain viewers.
Overall, it’s just disappointing. With the exception of a few actors, “Cats” is an unmitigated disaster — and a gigantic waste of time.
“Cats” premieres December 20. You can watch the trailer below.