“Once a year, cats come together to compete for a chance at a new life.” – Old Deuteronomy
The explanation given, by the wisest character and leader of the “Jellicle” cat ball, for the yearly gathering of felines in the live-action film adaptation of CATS – the musical that has a record-breaking career spanning 30 plus years.
Let me first start by emphasizing the history of “Cats” before explaining my thoughts on the film adaptation. “Cats” is one of the longest-running shows in West End and Broadway history – having its world premiere at the New London Theatre in 1981, where it played for 21 years and earned the Olivier and Evening Standard Awards for Best Musical. In 1983, the Broadway production won seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and ran for an extraordinary 18 years. “Cats” has continuously appeared on stage around the globe – to date having played to 81 million people in more than fifty countries and in nineteen languages, deeming it is one of the most successful musicals of all time.
In light of the current controversy about the story, I will simply say millions of people, myself included, regard the theater production as an entertaining classic that has tickled fancies and excited imaginations for many years. I’ve personally seen the musical three times, including one of its last Broadway performances in September 2000.
With that said, Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper’s (The King’s Speech, Les Misérables, The Danish Girl) vision for this film was, to say it simply, heartbreaking for me as a fan. Instead of a back alley gathering of felines, who share stories, songs and display superlative athleticism to compete for a chance at a new life, the film takes the audience on a set hopping journey – that was as dizzying at times as the story must have appeared to those who had no idea what “Cats” was in the first place.
If you are a fan of the musical, here’s what I thought worked in the film versus what didn’t. Judi Dench as Old Deuteronomy was purrfect…okay, I couldn’t help myself. I also thought Ian McKellan was a great choice for Gus The Theatre Cat although, ironically, his role came off as way less theatrical in the film, with much of his witticism falling flat. Francesca Hayward, of The Royal Ballet fame, as Victoria was a vision of grace but the movie didn’t highlight her character’s physical prowess as much as the stage version. And Jennifer Hudson’s version of “Memory” was beautiful, albeit less compelling on screen for me than any of the stage versions I’ve witnessed, which leads me to my list of what did not work.
Storywise, the villian Macavity’s (Idris Elba) arc was changed for the worse, and so underwhelming I questioned why the need at all. Macavity is more mysterious and evil in the musical, which makes his journey’s end way more satisfying when it plays out on stage.
And three of the most beloved characters, Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo), Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson) and Mr. Mistoffelees’s (Laurie Davidson) antics were so disenchanting in the film, I questioned if the screening members watching – that weren’t already familiar – were keeping up at all. On top of that, the Mr. Mistoffelees character, who’s dance choreography is significantly less highlighted in the adaptation, lost momentum as his moments are displayed as less mysterious, and therefore less magical.
In sum, the attempt to tie characters’ stories from setting to setting, in addition to the various character changes, took away the mystery and mystique of “Cats” the musical – a disservice to viewers that functioned only to limit the imagination that makes the musical such an entertaining fantasy in the first place.
Regrettably, I rate “Cats” 2 out of 5 on the MMTrometer.
Until next thought, Thomasena