CATS. Starring: James Corden, Judi Dench, Idris Elba, Francesca Hayward, Ian McKellen, Jennifer Hudson, Taylor Swift, Laurie Davidson, and Jason Derulo. Also, Rebel Wilson, and others. Directed by Tom Hooper. Rated G (Very Mild themes). 110 min.
This American musical-fantasy film is a movie version of the stage musical of the same name by Andrew Lloyd Webber, which itself is based loosely on T. S. Eliot’s poetry collection, “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” published in 1939.
Following on from the famed stage musical, first performed on Broadway in 1982, the film tells the story of members of a tribe of Jellicle cats, competing to become the cat who will ascend to the Heaviside Layer (the word for cat heaven) to find a new life. Each cat competes by singing a song.
Familiar cats are featured: Victoria (Francesca Hayward, from the The Royal Ballet dances the part), Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson), Macavity (Iris Elba), Mr. Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson), Bustopher Jones (James Corden), Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench), and Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo). The song and dance routines in the film are infectious.
The story, which is thin, takes viewers to a ball where the tribe is gathering together to celebrate the rise of one of them to a heavenly state. They have grouped themselves together before Old Deuteronomy in preparation for presenting themselves as the cat who will be chosen as the one to rise to the Heaviside Layer and come back to a new life in reincarnated form.
Victoria must face the pain of being an abandoned cat to confront the future, and both Victoria and Grizabella want new beginnings to find acceptance. Some cats find the going difficult for other reasons. Macavity tries trickery to assert what he considers is his birth right to win, and Gus the Theatre Cat (Ian McKellen) focuses (brilliantly so) on his past, and not on the future. The singing and choreography in the movie are spirited, and Taylor Swift impressively sings the part of Bombalurina, bringing range and versatility to a brief role.
A mix of positive themes are communicated by the film. The movie projects the importance of letting go of pain to face the challenges of the future; the willingness to embrace new beginnings, regardless of the past; and the comfort and support engendered by understanding and accepting where one truly belongs. The film projects strongly the overall theme of progressing to a more satisfying life through willingness to change and by personal efforts to achieve recovery.
This is a movie with a talented ensemble cast that manages to escape the lure of the advanced technology that surrounds it. Much of the magic of the original stage production is anchored to a highly accomplished technological production.
Extensive visual effects have been mounted in the film to convert live action actors and actresses to realistically achieve the look of computer-animated cats. Actors perform in suits that are tracked through motion-capture technology. Motion picture capture is used to blend animal fur - digitally produced - to integrate the look of a cat with actors’ actual faces. The result of it all is to create an unsettling mix of highly sophisticated technology with the seductive power of an extremely good musical. One comes to miss the more amateur look of an intelligent use of face paint and appropriately chosen clothing. Modern technology has transformed the musical.
The movie is worth seeing, however. It is a well crafted film of a wonderful musical that has clearly stood the test of time. This is the first feature cinema film of a musical that opened 37 years ago and ran at that time for 7,495 performances. It has been subjected to digital wizardry, and the digital wizardry has given us an unexpected version of “Cats”. The energy of grand performances on stage has given way in this cinematic version to a different form of glamour. There are magical musical and dancing moments (as in “The Cat on the Railway Train”) when the wizardry comes to be thoroughly accepted. And McKellen and Dench shine through.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Universal Pictures International
Released December 26, 2019