Cats (Universal Pictures, PG)

This film adaptation of Cats is made with care from director Tom Hooper, who imbues the world with visual flair, exuberant set design, and a talented cast, though it may be more thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated by those who are familiar with the musical and its odd and not entirely understandable story.

Cats is a cultural phenomenon in the world of Broadway. It is based on a 1930’s poetry collection by T.S. Eliot called Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, and first premiered in the West End in the early 1980’s, with the score by musical mainstay Andrew Lloyd Webber. It follows a tribe of cats called Jellicles, on a special kind of night: the night where one of them will be selected as the Jellicle Choice by Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) at the Jellicle ball. When a cat is selected, they will ascend to the Heaviside Layer and return to a brand new life. Our observer is a white cat named Victoria (Francesca Hayward), who is thrown into the world and meets many of the Jellicles, including Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo), Bustopher Jones (James Corden), Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson), Gus (Ian McKellen) and the despondent Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson). Many of these cats are vying to be the Jellicle Choice but wish to do it in a fair way. The one exception to that is the sneaky Macavity (Idris Elba), who will stop at nothing to ascend to the heavens.

I did my best to try to explain what I had watched as someone who has never seen the musical. Honestly, that is where the movie struggles. If you are not already familiar with the musical, you will no doubt be lost. Who are the Jellicles, and why do they call themselves that? Answer: they’re cats, and I don’t know. What exactly is the Heaviside Layer? Answer: Heaven, I guess? You could say that Cats is more about the experience than the plot. However, that might be an easier sell in a live setting, where you are in the same environment as the performers. In a film, when you have a story that is as vague as this one, people who are not already familiar with the show will have a hard time finding something to grasp, and all the showmanship and craftsmanship may not be able to make up for that. Hooper and co-screenwriter Lee Hall, based on further research, seem to hew as closely to the original as possible. Again, this choice could prove alienating for some audiences.

That being said, the film is not at a loss for entertaining moments, regardless of where you fall on the spectrum in terms of familiarity with the material. This music has stayed in the public consciousness for a reason, as there is a lot of care put into the melodies, harmonies, orchestrations, and lyrical content. Plus, you have an interesting cast delivering those numbers with passion. As with his adaptation of Les Miserables, Hooper has the cast perform the numbers live on set, and they all rise to the challenge. Hudson gets the musical’s biggest number, “Memory,” and she delivers it flawlessly, both vocally and emotionally. Her struggle is the film’s high point, and Hudson is responsible for a lot of that. Dench and McKellan also provide the resonance, which is no surprise given their esteemed backgrounds. Corden and Wilson provide most of the comic relief, which mostly succeeds. Newcomer Hayward also does great work. I also want to give credence to Derulo and Swift, who are having the times of their lives with their campy solo numbers. They may not have much experience in acting, but their experience as performers comes in handy here. Swift even co-wrote a new song with Lloyd Webber for the musical, and it’s a well-done song that adds emotional layers to Hayward’s character.

What this film is already infamous for is the fact that the actor’s have been covered in digital fur. Yes, it is a bit off-putting whenever you see it at first. Sure, there are sometimes where they move like animated characters, rather than feel like they live in the setting. But in the end, it is impressive that, for the most part, if feels organic. They are also surrounded by gorgeous sets. Hooper and his team have done a great job really defining this London-based world and giving it its own unique flair. The neon-tinted colors are especially eye-popping, and cinematographer Christopher Ross helps define that aesthetic.

Overall, how you feel about Cats the movie is very much dependent on how you feel about Cats the musical. If you are already invested in the musical, you will probably enjoy this adaptation. If you have no investment, you may be entertained in parts, but will likely be scratching your head more than tapping your toes. | Bill Loellke

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