Chestertown Spy’s movie reviews are meant not so much as critical verdicts on the films, but to give movie fans an idea of what’s playing and whether they might want to see it – or give it a miss! Or to suggest a movie not your usual fare but which you might enjoy. If you decide to try a movie we review, just tell ‘em the Spy sent you!
Directed by Tom Hooper–famous for such films as Les Misérables and The King’s Speech–the movie boasts a star-studded cast including Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Jennifer Hudson, and Taylor Swift. It’s all-singing, all-dancing, with some of the most celebrated talents in the entertainment world–pop-stars, rappers, professional dancers, classically trained Shakespearean actors, young and old. Yet the film opened to very mixed reviews So what’s the deal?
Cats has a long, illustrious history. The original poems are by T.S. Eliot, a leading figure in 20th century poetry. First published in 1939, the book, “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” brought together fourteen whimsical poems originally written for Eliot’s godchildren. It was an instant hit, the sort of children’s classic that is beloved by kids and adults.
Then famous British composer Andrew Lloyd Webber teamed up with choreographer Gillian Lynne to create the musical stage version called simply Cats. Lloyd Webber already had several highly successful musical productions–Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1968), Jesus Christ Superstar (1971), and Evita (1978).
Cats the musical opened in London in 1981 and in New York the next year. It garnered seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical. The London production ran 21 years, while the Broadway version ran 18, both setting box office records along the way. It is widely considered the prototype of the modern blockbuster “mega-musical,” using spectacle and special effects.
In the story, the Jellicles are a gang of street cats who once a year hold a ball and talent show. The winner gets to fly away and be reincarnated in a new cat life.
As the movie opens, a young cat, Victoria, is abandoned on the Jellicles’ turf. Meanwhile, the Jellicles’ archenemy, Macavity the Mystery Cat, plots to thwart their ceremony. He wants the prize.
The movie makes extensive use of CGI – Computer Generated Imagery. The actors have no costumes. They were filmed wearing special motion-capture bodysuits. Then using CGI, cat features – skin, hair, coloration, ears, tails—were added. The tails had to be carefully synchronized with the choreography! All special effects require time and coordination, leading to many mistakes. Just days after opening, Universal sent a “patch” to fix problems like no fur on Judi Dench’s CGI “paw,” leaving her human hand–complete with wedding ring–visible.
The characters have human faces. This combination of CGI and human was controversial for many critics. At first, I found the combination a little unsettling but I soon got used to it.
Interestingly, the viewing public is more enthusiastic about the film than the critics. On Rotten Tomatoes (https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/cats_2019), critics gave it only 20% positive rating while audiences ranked it 53%. I thought the movie did a better job than the play of tying the songs together into a coherent story. But the plot is a bit thin. It’s a feline variety/talent show. And although it doesn’t come together perfectly, there are some really wonderful scenes. My favorite was the tap dance on railroad tracks. I’d watch that again. However, I found the marching cockroaches – all with human faces – to be a slightly queasy combination of boring yet mesmerizing.
Apparently many people went expecting typical holiday fare, fun-for-the-whole-family Disney-or-Hallmark-type movie It’s definitely not that. It’s an operetta. In fact, it’s probably best described as an art film – focused on dancing and singing. Both are excellent.
Francesca Hayward, who plays the abandoned kitten Victoria, is a principal dancer at the Royal Ballet. The other dancers are also professionals. Children taking dance lessons will likely be inspired.
There are strong performances by Judi Dench (Old Deuteronomy) and Ian McClellan (Gus, theater cat). Grammy-winning singer Taylor Swift has a cameo, descending from the sky on a crescent moon and dispensing catnip from a soda can. Jennifer Hudson (Grizabella) does a wonderful job singing “Memory,” the show’s hit tune. However, her rendition is marred by closeups showing the cat’s character crying and dripping snot as she sings. It puts a damper on what is otherwise a beautiful song, beautifully sung.
And that’s what the movie Cats does. It swings from beautiful and mesmerizing to bewildering or mildly off-putting. One moment there is beautiful dancing and singing that pulls you in; then something in the action or scenery or a plot twist is awkward, leaving you unsatisfied or even angry until a moment later, a cats does something adorable, licking paw and washing ear just like a real cat. Or a dancer with her tail flying leaps unbelievably high against an absolutely gorgeous city nightscape. And you are pulled back into the magic.
If you can turn off your inner-critic and just go with the flow, there is much to enjoy. The dancing is excellent. All the singers have good voices. Sometimes images are odd, some sequences are too long or too dark. Overall, at 1 hour 42 minutes, the film is too long. With some judicious cutting it could have been 10 to 15 minutes shorter.
To get a feel for the characters, sets, the dancing and the music–and most of all, the CGI effects– check out some of the short clips online. The official trailer https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/cats_2019. You can read some of the original poetry from The Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats at the website Famous Poets and Poems. “Macavity the Mystery Cat” is at http://famouspoetsandpoems.com/poets/t__s__eliot/poems/15127
If you’re one of the millions who loved Cats on Broadway, or if you’re a lover of dance, you should take a look at director Hooper’s vision. There’s a lot to like although quality is not even. Cats may turn out to be one of those cult movies, like Rocky Horror, with fierce critics and even fiercer fans. I’m glad I saw it.