Review by Tim Robins
A tribe of cats must decide yearly which one will ascend to the Heaviside Layer and come back to a new life…
Nothing I can write will stop Cats from being a critical and box office disaster, but the movie really doesn’t deserve the opprobrium that has been heaped upon it by its critics. The film never stood a chance after the twit sphere and on-line nit wits pounced on the trailer and, in particular, the way the film director Tom Hooper had realised its human feline hybrids.
I was incredulous as cinema goers familiar with all manner of sci-fi oddities and Disney’s animated anthropomorphic characters professed to find the trailer for Cats exceptionally creepy and weird. Really? And, as for the film itself, those who couldn’t grasp the plot (explained in the opening numbers) just weren’t paying attention.
Cats is based on the stage musical which, in turn, is based on a collection of poems by T.S. Eliot who, under the pet name of ‘Old Possum’, wrote them for his godchildren in the 1930s. Although whimsical and deliberately light hearted, the poems drew on Eliot’s interests as diverse as the crime fiction of Conan Doyle and a love of the theatre. The villainous cat Macacvity alludes to Moriarty:
And they say that all the Cats whose wicked deeds are widely known
(I might mention Mungojerrie, I might mention Griddlebone)
Are nothing more than agents for the Cat who all the time
Just controls their operations: the Napoleon of Crime!
Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical makes Macavity the villain of a plot that sees various Jellical cats competes to be chosen at the “Jellicle Ball” to ascend to the “heaviside-layer’. “Jellicle” is derived from the expression “dear little cats”. This child-like word play is a feature of some Modernist work, notably the critically acclaimed George E Herriman’s dog, mouse and cat comic strip Krazy Kat.
Eliot also drew on nursery rhymes in his unsparingly bleak poem “The Hollow Men”, including the children’s singing game “Here we go round the Mulberry bush”:
Here we go round the prickly pear
Prickly pear prickly pear
Here we go round the prickly pear
At five o’clock in the morning.
The “heaviside-layer” is Earth’s ionosphere. So the winning cat (seen ascending through the roof of in a scene reminiscent of Baron Munchausen’s escape from a city in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) is presumably being carried off to her death. I wondered who the unfortunate cat would fall on when she plummeted to Earth.
I haven’t seen Cats on stage, but I can see why the musical is a success. It is set around the streets of London, particularly the theatre district with many of the cats characterised by their famous territories; the streets, clubs and theatres that themselves have a mythical status for those visiting London from the sticks or abroad. Thus, Cats is a tourist trap of a musical. I can well imagine wind, rain and pedestrian battered visitors seeking shelter in a more magical London than the confusing reality.
The plot for the musical, translated to film with some changes, is really flimsy. The build up to the ball, a sort of feline Britain’s Got Talent, and the ball itself are mostly opportunities for various winsome cats to sing their “back stories” while a-jumpin’ and a-jivin’ across the stage/screen. The musical divides attention between an abandoned house cat called Victoria and Grizabella, an ageing decidedly worse for wear cat who suffered at the paws of the disreputable Macavity. Victoria and Grizabella carry the emotional core of the story, which is about seeking acceptance, receiving recognition and growing in confidence. Only a gloomy old Marxist like Theodore Adorno would fail to approve of how a song such as “Memory” recognises those longings and lighten our hearts.
The starry cast of the film acquit themselves well. Sir Ian McKellen is excellent as an old theatre cat of The Windmill (he doesn’t sing and dance in the nude!) and Dame Judy Dench is purr-fectly cast as Deuteronomy, whose role is to choose which cat ascends to a new life. Newcomer Francesca Hayward, a principal Ballerina at the Royal Ballet is adorable as Victoria and Jennifer Hudson will tear your heart apart with her final rendition of ‘Memory’.
Rebel Wilson’s also deserves plaudits for creating one of the screen’s most alarming and horrific serial killers, Jennyanydots. A corpulent cat, she makes mice perform on stage and turns cockroaches into a marching band while fur-tively eating them. Move over, Jigsaw and Leatherface, there’s a ‘giallo’-ginger in town.
James Corden comically hams up his performance of a snobbish fat cat bon vivant, and Idris Elba chews up the scenery as Macavity the Mystery Cat – but his villainy really does pale into insignificance alongside Jennyanydots.
Cats may not be a great film, but it is a clever one. The musical numbers carry the lightweight narrative and the deeper emotional themes while evoking the history of screen musicals. But the film doesn’t capture the power of the great musicals that characterised my childhood – South Pacific, The Sound of Music, and Oliver! The latter, along with “On a Clear Day you Can See Forever” were the first films I saw on my own (I was on a cruise to The Canary Islands and the ship had a small cinema).
I am deeply suspicious of criticism that originates as a twitter storm. The first question I have started to ask is “Does this film feature women in lead roles?” If the answer is “Yes”, then all the rest follows. And Cats also had the audacity to compete with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, itself bogged down by women-hating fans.
Bizarrely, screenings of both Cats and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker saw members of the audiences who I saw the films with, burst into spontaneous applause. Hooray for that.
• Cats: The Musical on AmazonUK (Affiliate Link)