Hello, Movie Buffs!
One night, a naive young cat named Victoria (Francesca Hayward) is abandoned in a back-alley where she soon comes face-to-face with members of the local cat tribe known as the Jellicle Cats. Tonight is the night of Jellicle Ball, an event where the wise and elderly Old Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) will make "the Jellicle choice" and decide which gets to ascend to the Heaviside Layer and return to a new Jellicle life. But as the various Jellicle Cats prepare for the night’s festivities and take turns auditioning for their chance at a new life, the cunning and mysterious Macavity (Idris Elba) conspires to take out his competition.
Directed by Tom Hooper (The King's Speech, Les Misérables, The Danish Girl) and co-written alongside Lee Hall (Billy Elliott, War Horse), Cats (2019) is the unexpected film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's beloved fantasy Broadway musical Cats which is based off of T.S. Eliot’s poem book Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. As one of the longest-running shows in theater history, Cats has played a record-breaking 9,000 performances over the span of 21 years since its world premiere in 1981.In 1998, Webber produced a Cats video special in which a live performance of the Broadway show was filmed because few thought that the material would hold up in a film and fortunately, it was successful. Now the latest adaptation of the musical attempts to make a cinematic masterpiece out of an inherently stagebound show primarily made up of a collection of catchy melodies and witty poems. And while Cats is soon-to-be known as one of 2019’s most legendary misfires, there are quality aspects that made it worthwhile.
One such aspect is the choreography by Andy Blankenbuehle. Not since films like Cabaret (1972), Chicago (1975), and All That Jazz (1979) has a musical focused so much on the language of movement. In Cats, Blankenbuehle puts emphasis on the dancer’s bodies and, to his credit, director Hooper placed a ballerina from the Royal Ballet in the lead role. I’m not saying that the dancing saves the film but it does provide a good show and when Victoria takes center stage to dance, she is riveting and captivating.
As one of the weirdest and slightly garish films of 2019, Cats is a fascinating film that follows a safe and familiar path towards a predictable ending. The Broadway show was a random series of stories that centered around an annual ball and the plight of the lonely, fallen, and formerly glamorous cat, Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson), whose story gives the show a melancholy heart. It was this type of narrative that always made Cats appear as if it were unfilmable, with the exception of the 1998 video special, but that didn’t stop director Hopper and co-writer Hall from delivering an updated story that tries to connect the cats with the audience in a way that only film can do. Victoria is the film’s protagonist, and serves as the audience's eyes and ears as we, through her, meet all the different Jellicle Cats, Macavity is a more present threat in the story, even Mr. Mistoffelees gets a stronger storyline which adds more meaning to his solo song.
Another aspect that not even the critics could argue with is the sheer brilliance of the music. Every song was delivered with excellence by some of the most well-known artist in the world. The fun songs like “Gumbie Cat” with Rebel Wilson, “Bustopher Jones” with James Corden, and “Rum Tum Tugger” with Jason Derulo are more fun and comical than in the Broadway version, while other songs made a more profound than in the Broadway version. Taylor Swift’s version of Macavity, while not as good as the Broadway version, explores the original version and introduces another side to the song, and the song Mr. Mistoffeleese acts as a deeper dive into an otherwise unknown and mysterious character. However, out of all these songs two stood out the most for me. First, Francesca Hayward sings the film’s new song Beautiful Ghost and despite the fact that she is not a trained singer, I found her voice conveyed exactly what was needed for the song. She sings about her journey of coming from nothing and being abandoned to discovering this new and interesting life with an incredible group of people who opened their home and hearts for her. And second, Jennifer Hudson’s rendition of Memory is moving, impactful, and tells the story of her pain, grief, regret, and heartache at being ostracized for naive choices she made in her past. She encourages us to connect with the character and experience what she has gone through, and it is simply beautiful.
The cast performances were good and most of the actors fit in with the character that they were given. Francesca Hayward as Victoria and Jennifer Hudson as Grizabella were perfect. Hayward’s Victoria is a combination of Victoria and Jemma from the Broadway production, which Webber split into two roles when he was unable to find the actress needed to play such a strong role. Victoria and Jemma are two of the youngest kittens and are described as being young, inhibited, playful, innocent, and compassionate. She is one of the only cats who feels and expresses empathy with Grizabella, and this is demonstrated throughout the film. Hudson’s performance as Grizabella was outstanding. I cannot think of anyone else that could have portrayed the character better than her. Judi Dench was great as Old Deuteronomy, Laurie Davidson shows a more natural side to the magical Mr. Mistoffelees, Rebel Wilson as Jennyanydots and James Corden as Bustopher Jones were a comical pair, and Idris Elba did a pretty good job as the film’s antagonist Macavity. My least favorite those was Taylor Swift. She is not my overly favorite singer to begin with and her attempt at being the generous, voluptuous, and frank cat Bombalurina was not very successful. In fact, it seemed as if she were trying to hard. The rest of the characters - Robbie Fairchild as Munkustrap, Jason Derulo as Rum Tum Tugger, Ian McKellen as Gus the Theatre Cat, Steven McRae as Skimbleshanks, Danny Collins as Mungojerrie, Naoimh Morgan as Rumpleteazer, Mette Towley as Cassandra, and Ray Winstone as Captain Growltiger, and more - were spot on.
Overall, Cats (2019) is not the masterpiece of the year, far from it actually. But with the prospect of getting a special effects update to the film and the fact that the story is just simply fun, entertaining, and heartfelt, I am sure that despite the negative response it will manage to charm a few hearts or so. The filmmakers had big shoes to fill and were tasked with an enormous undertaking of taking a 21 year long legacy and putting on the big screen. In doing so they presented audiences with a new and updated story as well as used new digital fur tech to bring the characters to life without having to rely on costumes and effects makeup. The songs are even bigger than before and are sure to make you smile, laugh, and even cry during most of its songs. I highly recommend that you see this film simply to be entertained and not because you wish to compare it to the Broadway show because both have certain elements that make it unique. Give it a chance and keep an open mind.
Final Vote --- 8 of 10 stars
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Les Miserables (2012)
The Phantom of the Opera (2004)
The Sound of Music (1965)