The film of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats” arrives without so much buzz as hisses thanks to a trailer released back in July which seemed to horrify more than to suggest a beloved fantasy musical that has, according to provided production information, been staged for over 81 million people in more than 50 countries and in 19 languages since its London premiere in 1981.
In its original theatrical presentation, “Cats” was weird, yes, but also an admirably immersive, intimate blend of junkyard pizzazz, busy makeup, leg warmers, T.S. Eliot rhymes and Webber earworms that, in its nonsensical Jellicle-osity, added up to something reasonably transportive. It never purred, but it pranced, preened and projected enough to be cat-video distracting, even as it augured decades of stage musicals that favored the flashy over the finely tuned.
But Tom Hooper’s jarring fever dream of a spectacle is like something that escaped from Dr. Moreau’s creature laboratory instead of a poet’s and a composer’s feline (uni)verse, an un-catty valley hybrid of physical and digital that unsettles and crashes way more often than it enchants.
And it does enchant a few times, thanks to the ease with which Jennifer Hudson (as downtrodden Grizabella), Judi Dench (as regal Old Deuteronomy) and Ian McKellen (as, who else, the Theater Cat) growl some feeling into the heaving, disorienting strangeness. Like how Anne Hathaway was that oasis of soulfulness in Hooper’s deranged visual-aural hash of “Les Misérables.”
His “Cats” isn’t the same kind of bad, though, even as Hooper remains a terrible director of movies dependent on the effortless combining of song, performance, and movement. For all I know, he may even secretly hate musicals. But this “Cats,” rather than being some mistreated classic, is mostly a bizarro version of an already risky show that — unlike the Jellicle eventually chosen for ascendant rebirth in its threadbare narrative — never achieves lift-off.
Cats are elegant. This “Cats” isn’t. In fact, for a good while — starting with the opening, which introduces pearl-colored new stray Victoria (ballet superstar Francesca Hayward) to the turf felines who prowl 1930s’ London hoping to be anointed by Old Deuteronomy, and through numbers with Rebel Wilson (as showbiz-mad Jennyanydots), Jason Derulo (as self-centered Rum Tum Tugger) and James Corden (as gluttonous Bustopher) — it’s painful enough to make your heart race for everyone involved.
It’s one thing trying to get acclimated to the digi-furred humans, cartoonishly upscaled environments and choppily edited disrespect for Andy Blankenbuehler’s hormonal choreography. It’s another to feel abiding pity for committed performers, especially Wilson, tasked with cat puns and awkward body displays that Hooper films with something close to perverse contempt.
Hayward’s Victoria has been given the protagonist’s role — the stranger learning a new world — in Hooper’s and co-screenwriter Lee Hall’s reworking of a story-deficient show into something meagerly plotted. Never mind, one thinks: We’re here for razzle-dazzle.
And yet it’s abidingly odd that Hayward and the other dance-trained performers in key roles (like Tony-nominated Robert Fairchild and Royal Ballet Principal Steven McRae) never look entirely like real people doing real dances on real sets, so pervasive in saturated color and off-kilter depth and movement is the mood of CG artificiality rendered by DP Christopher Ross (“Yesterday”) and the effects team.
When even a simple shot of a vase teetering, falling and smashing looks animated (and badly so), one questions the authenticity of every catlike leap and bound, too, which starts to become a form of moviegoer madness as Hooper’s pathological visual restlessness keeps any sense of otherworldly wonder at bay.
When things slow down, though, for Hudson’s appealingly torchy “Memory,” Dench’s queenly countenance (in a role typically played onstage by a man) and shabby tabby McKellen making you believe he — and not (ahem) a mouse — is controlling his ears, Hooper briefly quashes his worst instincts, too.
It’s practically a pivot point, from full-on disaster to merely wrongheaded oddity. The Jellicle Ball sequence, which makes the best use of Eve Stewart’s distressed production design, at least feels grounded in a kind of school-play energy. And Taylor Swift’s strutting, gamely British-accented number about the show’s villain, Idris Elba’s Macavity, recalls the loony music-hall verve with which Ken Russell approached musicals. (Swift’s and Webber’s co-written new song “Beautiful Ghosts,” however, paired with “Memory” as an I-see-you response to Grizabella, is paradoxically unmemorable.)
As for Elba, snarly and green-eyed, the sinister play-acting is fine until he has to step lively at the end without his trenchcoat and is felled by that unflattering, photorealistic, skintight cat fur, like a Snapchat filter gone horribly wrong. It’s peculiar to think Elba looks better with his clothes on, but that’s where “Cats” has left us, folks — wishing for the simple pleasures of dressing-room greasepaint skills, fuzzy handmade costumes, and even those leg warmers while wanting to erase the sight of breast bumps and erect tails.
Eager cultists and the psychotropic-minded may lovingly feast on this “Cats” for years to come, and even children may feel they’ve learned a valuable lesson about the limits of the imagination. But for now (and to borrow its famed tagline, forever), this version is just a big swing and a hiss.