Cinematic Releases: Feline Follies and Jellicle Junk: 'Cats' (2019) Reviewed


Once upon a time – 1939, to be exact – T. S. Eliot wrote a charming slim volume of poetry called Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, a collection of novel verses that loosely tell the tale of a race of cats known as “Jellicles”. Based upon this whimsy, Andrew Lloyd Webber penned a musical simply named Cats – which, since the 1980s, has had its share of performances and reimaginings, of which, Tom Hooper’s new musical fantasy dramedy is perhaps the strangest and most discombobulated.

For those unfamiliar with the narrative of Cats, for the term “story” is too kind a word for what happens here, it is fairly hopeless to understand. Essentially, the group of Jellicle Cats are about to hold their Jellicle Ball, a yearly event wherein an ancient matriarch of the feline clan, Old Deuteronomy (Dame Judi Dench) returns to make the Jellicle Choice – one cat from the group will be selected to be sent “to the Heaviside Layer” (through the ionosphere in a balloon) to be somehow reborn into a new, and better, life upon being deemed worthy of it. The bizarre antics and rituals of this Jellicle clan are witnessed by a na├»ve and sweet-natured white kitten called Victoria (Francesca Hayward), who has been abandoned in their territory and taken in by the majority of them. She spies a lonely and forgotten outcast cat called Grizabella, a former “Glamour Cat” who fell in with a magical criminal cat known as Macavity (Idris Elba) and was driven out of the group, and, finding herself wanting to help the ragged old dame reclaim some happiness, Victoria tries to bring her back into the fold using her own nascent influence, even as Macavity disappears his rivals for the Jellicle Choice one by one.


This is an ambitious film, with fantastic costuming and effects and some truly stunning choreography work. But, much like the stage musical before it, this adaptation of Cats suffers from its own heavy hubris; despite the presence of so much vocal talent (including Taylor Swift as Grizabella’s sister Bombalurina, who remains under Macavity’s spell, and the phenomenal Jennifer Hudson as Grizabella herself), it is weighted with melodrama and slapstick, without any real exposition or connection between scenes. Without prior knowledge of the different characters and their roles in the strange Jellicle society, even the most talented of ensembles would have had difficulty bringing any kind of cohesive story to life, let alone could they handle the delicate art of making these cat characters seem in any way real. Although they are, in some ways, meant to be caricatures of singular traits, from Rum Tum Tugger’s (Jason Derulo) troublemaking curiosity to the wanton destructiveness of the calico pair Mungojerrie (Danny Collins) and Rumpleteazer (Naoimh Morgan), it is difficult to really enjoy them, as they are little more than that. Even the sinister Macavity seems simply to want to throw a spanner in the works for anyone else to claim what he sees as his rightful prize; it isn’t made clear just why he wants a better life, or what may have occurred previously to make him believe he deserves one.



It is vastly unjust that such a talented cast is stuck middling with a directionless jumble of yarn for a narrative, and even though a new song has been added to the score – “Beautiful Ghosts”, a collaborative effort between Lloyd Webber and Swift – it is a pale shadow of what might have been accomplished with a totally new approach. Such seasoned performers as Dame Judi Dench and Sir Ian McKellen (whose performance as the palsied, nostalgic Gus the Theatre Cat is maudlin and beautiful) deserve better than this muddled clump of kitty litter. And it’s truly unfortunate, because as unusual a premise as Cats is, and as disjointed a narrative as it might still have been – based upon a series of poems, after all – it could have become something as clever even as Mr. Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson), the Magic Cat, but winds up simply being silly, drawn-out, and affected.

In short, there is no real heart or connection, and no amount of jaunty Jellicles can prevent it from being a hairball. There might be some shiny ribbon in it, but it’s still going to stain the carpet.


--Dana Culling