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Film Review: “Cats” Barely Scratches at the Potential of its Cinematic Adaptation

Written by: Patrick Howard | December 19th, 2019

Film poster: “Cats”

Cats (Tom Hooper, 2019) 1½ out of 4 stars.

No matter how off-putting the surreal nature of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit 1981 Broadway show Cats may be, one can’t deny the alluring idea of the show’s cinematic adaptation. While cinemas around the world continue to be dominated by superhero blockbusters, a high-budgeted musical breaking up the routine is not unwelcome. Cats would serve as a reminder of the genre of films that packed theater houses by the thousands during the first half of the 20thcentury.

Newcomer Francesca Hayward plays the freshly abandoned cat Victoria. Before she can contemplate what kind of future lies ahead, Victoria is taken in by a tribe of cats that call themselves the Jellicle cats. From there, she is thrown into a competition for the feline ages: one special night the oldest of the Jellicle cats chooses which cat will be given the chance to be reborn and live a new life in an afterlife called the Heaviside Layer. 

Tom Hooper’s Cats lovingly remains faithful to the original Broadway production, so much so that its cinematic merit is questionable. Anyone who is well-versed in the clear differences between theater and cinema knows the one thing a film adaptation can offer is a fully immersive experience. Cats meets this qualification on the most basic level. Sure, Hooper and company have created impressive, oversized sets for the star-studded cast, including Jennifer Hudson, Dame Judi Dench, and Sir Ian McKellen, to play around in and show off their inner cat. The correct proportions of the cats and the buildings get a little wonky at times, but for the most part, it’s one of the few exceptional gifts Cats can deliver.

Taylor Swift in CATS ©Universal Pictures

To answer the popular question to this film, “why human beings as cats?,” I suggest posing the same question to the original theater production. If Andrew Lloyd Webber was so committed to adapting T.S. Eliot’s poem collection Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats to the stage, then a performer in a cat-like leotard and make-up was the way to go, honestly. Is the look beyond weird? Sure, but you get it. On a technical level, the computer-generated cat suits and makeup are commendable. Past that, the humanoid cats, unsurprisingly, are the hardest thing to stomach. Jennifer Hudson’s rendition of the musical’s most iconic song, “Memories,” is the true standout of the feature. Can I say it is worth sitting through an impressively sluggish second act to get to it? No, but I promise you, it was the only moment my jaw hit the floor.

Cats will have received its overwhelming share of negative criticism by the time this review goes live. A majority of the criticism I suggest you take to heart. The film is a repetitive bore that is merciless to the audience with a minute dab of entertaining moments. However, the criticism I suggest you look out for is the criticism five or ten years from now. A film this bonkers and aspirational will have some effect on the cinematic landscape in the coming years. I can’t say for certain whether or not that effect will be good or bad, but the influence of Tom Hooper’s Cats will no doubt have its place in pop culture.

Jennifer Hudson in CATS ©Universal Pictures

Patrick Howard has been a cinephile since age seven. Alongside 10 years of experience in film analysis and criticism, he is a staunch supporter of all art forms and believes their influence and legacy over human culture is vital. Mr. Howard takes the time to write his own narrative stories when he can.

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