Cats movie review: A seriously unique disasterpiece
This long acid trip doesn't end well.
Jennifer BissetFormer Senior Editor / Culture
Jennifer Bisset was a senior editor for CNET. She covered film and TV news and reviews. The movie that inspired her to want a career in film is Lost in Translation. She won Best New Journalist in 2019 at the Australian IT Journalism Awards.
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Best New Journalist 2019 Australian IT Journalism Awards
You may have heard of Andrew Lloyd Webber, the celebrated composer behind hits like The Phantom of the Opera, Jesus Christ Superstar and Cats. The latter, based on a collection of T.S. Elliot poems, is one of the longest-running Broadway shows. It's also widely considered one of the worst musicals of all time.
With the help of Les Miserables director Tom Hooper, that musical has now been adapted for the screen. Expectations may be low for the star-studded CGI fest, especially following its divisive trailer, which saw many point out one problem: The cats don't look like cats.
Instead of taking Sonic the Hedgehog's route away from the uncanny valley, Cats buries its head deep in its human-cat hybrid world. The tiny Na'vi cousins have human hands, feet, lips, noses, eyes and, in some cases, breasts. Their fur is their best feature, beautifully photo-realistic. But the compliments end there.
With its cast of ballet dancers, singers and actors, Cats comes across as a musical theater lover's best night out. Hooper creates a neon-drenched early-1900s London, virtually deserted except for big, glowing Vaudevillian sets embroidered with dirty bin-ridden alleys.
With their long limbs and fur-shrouded humanoid faces, the nocturnal tribe of "Jellicle" cats bound from set-to-set, sing-speaking their confusing story, which despite some committed efforts, is less poetic and more Alice in Wonderland acid trip.
It's a seriously unique cinematic experience, but one you may want to avoid.
If you haven't seen the musical, it may take awhile to realize why you can't figure out what Cats is about. That's because Cats is about mad, philosophical, barely-intelligible stray animals. They gather once a year for the Jellicle Ball, where cats essentially audition to be picked to ascend to the "Heavyside Layer," a magical place that will see them reborn in a new, better life. Yep, it's out there.
Without wasting a minute, Cats' carnival-sounding music plunges us into its Get Out sunken place. An unexplained car drops off a new cat on the block, the cotton-furred, innocent kitten Victoria, played by ballet dancer Francesca Hayward. Eventually, the shy character opens up for a solo piece, a likeable but not exactly memorable new song written by Taylor Swift and Lloyd Webber.
Victoria comes across as our Alice to this world, but she's never really a sympathetic character, partly because of her extended silences, partly because she looks like a stage actor playing a CGI cat. Across the board, it's hard to empathize with the cobblestone dwelling species -- if they looked like real cats, it may have been easier to care about their cat-specific hardships.
Over the course of the film, which is too long to make this an enjoyable acid trip, Victoria is whisked away to essentially watch a series of solo performances by famous people, including Swift, who has one of the more successful acts.
Her character, femme fatale Bombalurina, sprinkles daze-inducing catnip over anyone who doesn't support villainous Macavity, aka the muscliest cat ever, played by Idris Elba. Dancing like she's in one of her music videos, Swift's sense of fun results in one of the least cringey acts. Meanwhile, the rest of the movie often feels like a filmed Broadway musical.
Jennifer Hudson, playing the outcast Grizabella, gives multiple touching performances of the famous Memory. While her palpable misery sticks out uncomfortably from the comedic characters, she truly lands a show-stopping moment.
But the contrast of cat interpretations, from Judi Dench's disenchanting Old Deuteronomy, to Jason Derulo's party boy Rum Tum Tugger, to James Corden's over-the-top Bustopher Jones, never quite let the ensemble sing.
Rebel Wilson represents the best balance of CGI weirdness and humor. The standout as Jennyanydots, a cockroach-eating, fur-licking layabout, her tail acting is exceptional. Her self-aware moments of improv are all-too fleeting breaths of fresh air.
But the worst of Cats is saved for its final moments, where its saving graces disappear behind a long, baffling speech about how humans should treat real cats. What may have worked for Cats the musical, bares its awkward pantomime teeth at the cinema.
If you can overlook the problematic CGI and enjoy the craft of the performances, Cats may be a unique blend of musical and movie. But that pure spectacle boils down to a skin and bone plot, enclosed in a strange dystopia that lacks genuine heart.
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