By Mr. Will Wong
We are torn how to look at Academy Award winning Director Tom Hooper‘s CATS, based on Andrew Lloyd Weber‘s internationally-adored Musical and also T.S. Eliot‘s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. On one hand, it is fantastical – a well-intentioned, star-studded, gorgeous-looking spectacle. On the other, it misses the mark its legacy has paved for it. We’re certain the legions of fans who adore Cats will find joy at the chance to sing along once again and see its remarkable big screen transformation. But to those walking-in not ever having seen the Musical, we aren’t sure its moral of the importance of being a good kitty lands so poignantly.
The story centers on Victoria (played by newcomer Francesca Hayward), new to the tribe of cats called The Jellicles. She learns quickly it is the aspiration of these cats to be named The Jellicle Choice, an honour given to the most deserving feline to ascend up to the Heaviside Layer. The heaven is where that one cat chosen by Queen Bee Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) comes back to a new, amazing life. Along the way, we see many deserving contenders in what unfolds like a variety show, but these charismatic cats need to be warned as the scheming Macavity (Idris Elba) is willing to do what it takes to claw his way to the front, eliminating his competition. We see this fantasy world through the eyes of Victoria, who for the first time in her life finds her place in the world among The Jellicles.
CATS is not without its charms. There are a few showstopping performances which are affecting. Ian McKellen is tremendous as Gus the Theatre Cat casting the audience under his spell in the span of one song, Growltiger’s Last Stand. James Corden’s showmanship as the scraps-indulging Bustopher Jones is another bright spot and Steven McRae as Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat, puts on a dazzling display of fancy footwork. We don’t mind at all Taylor Swift‘s Soundtrack contribution Beautiful Ghosts, even if it is more memorable than her performance. But the issue is that the Film leans much on the strength of performances of the the many characters we explore in the match for The Jellicle Choice. Because not every character is as remarkable as the other, it feels uneven and long at points when the entire spirit of the Film should feel fun and festive. Ultimately, it doesn’t which is a shame because the heart and effort are so visibly there.
Co-Writers Hooper and Lee Hall missed opportunities to develop one of the Story’s most central figures, Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson). The character who delivers Cats’ centerpiece number, Memory is limited to popping-in and out, brooding incessantly, when there was an opportunity to develop her story so that her shining moment would’ve come with great impact and reward. But alas, it doesn’t and this is heartbreaking because we wanted to love all of this. The same applies to Elba‘s Macavity where we don’t get enough of the story behind his destructive hunger to win. The Film knows the message it wants to convey but takes a very roundabout route getting to it.
CATS is a Christmas Cake made of only the best aged brandy, the plumpest candied fruits and nuts. The batter that holds it all together however, lacks the thickness to hold these premium ingredients together and every cake needs a strong foundation to stand and be savoured.
Universal Pictures Canada release CATS in theatres Friday, December 20, 2019.