‘Cats’ disturbs and disappoints audiences

Photo credit @Universal Pictures

By Kaitlyn Riggio
BU News Service

BOSTON — Anyone would wonder why the award-winning musical composed by Andrew Lloyd Weber and based on T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” needed to be destroyed in a movie adaptation.

“Cats,” released on Dec. 20, is a movie adaptation of the 1981 musical of the same name. The original production of the musical is currently the fourth-longest running Broadway musical of all time and won seven Tony awards. But stellar source material was not enough to save this catastrophe of a movie. 

To the film’s credit, there were some elements of the story that came across more clearly on the screen than they did on stage, such as the premise of the story. When discussing “Cats,” it is not uncommon to hear people ask, “What is this show even about? Is it just a show about cats?”

Sort of. “Cats” follows a community of cats, the Jellicles, and tells the story of the annual event where their leader makes the Jellicle choice, where one cat is chosen to ascend and come back to life as a new cat. 

In the stage version, it can be difficult to pick up on this plot point because it is explained in the middle of a song. But the movie version included Victoria, a cat who was new to the Jellicle tribe. The Jellicle cats explained the Jellicle choice to her, and to the audience by extension, upon her arrival. 

Unfortunately, every other element that made the original musical stand out was nowhere to be found in the film. 

One of the most obvious problems became apparent months before the movie even hit theatres: the way the cats look. 

The stage show turns the actors into cats through costuming and makeup. The work is impressive, and the audience is never in doubt that the actors they are watching are meant to represent cats. 

This excellent costuming and makeup work is not present in the movie. Instead, the actors are turned into cats through CGI. The end result is an odd and frankly disturbing humanoid cat. Think a human body covered in cat hair and a cat head with a human face. It was unsettling to watch, to the point that it distracted from the rest of the film. 

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Tony Award-winning music was still in the movie (with the exception of a Taylor Swift-authored song, “Beautiful Ghosts,” which would have been better off not in the film. In the middle of a movie where the rest of the songs were written by Webber, it sticks out like a sore thumb.), but that was not enough to save the film. 

This is largely because the chosen cast was not strong enough to carry the music.

The cast of “Cats” was comprised of many big-name celebrities, but a big name does not always equal talent. 

Though Jason Derulo, who played Rum Tum Tugger, and Taylor Swift, who played Bombalurina, were able to make names for themselves as musical artists, they lacked the musical theatre training required to perform their roles the way a Broadway caliber performer would be able to. As a result, most of the songs in the film paled in comparison to the stage versions that came before. 

There was one stand-out vocal moment in the movie, and this was Jennifer Hudson’s performance of “Memory” as the character Grizabella, the most well-known song in the show. 

And yet even this moment could not be enjoyed to its fullest extent. “Memory” is meant to be a solo performed by Grizabella only. In the movie, however, “Memory” was performed by Grizabella and Victoria, played by Francesca Hayward. 

Hayward is a professional ballerina and, as such, is not known for her singing. Her vocal talents were not on the same level as Hudson’s. As a result, the most famous song in the show performed by arguably the best member of the cast became just as lackluster as the rest of the songs. 

One of the most notable elements of the stage production of “Cats” is the choreography, and it is clear that there was an attempt to make dance a highlight of the movie as well. The principal cast included a number of professional dancers, including the aforementioned Hayward and Steven McRae, who played Skimbleshanks. 

But on the whole, the choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler, known for his Tony Award-winning choreography in “Hamilton,” was underwhelming. Blankenbuehler’s work fits better on stage; his work in “Cats” felt disjointed at times and overall bland. There were not any stand-out dance moments featuring the whole cast, but the talents of Hayward and McRae individually should be acknowledged.  

With the combined factors of subpar vocal performances and lackluster dance features, the resulting musical numbers were boring and generally unimpressive, which is concerning considering “Cats” is comprised nearly entirely of musical numbers. 

The songs in “Cats” only served to tell the stories of the various cats in the cast. This in and of itself is not a crime; the songs in musicals are supposed to serve as expositional devices which move the plot along. 

But they also need to be entertaining. This key element was missing, which made the musical numbers borderline painful to sit through at times.

One question about “Cats” the movie remains: who was this movie made for?

Fans of the original musical will be disappointed by this weak attempt to bring the show to the screen. But at the same time, there is little to no appeal for those who do not have prior knowledge of “Cats,” so why would they see it? It feels like “Cats” is a movie for no one.

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