My previous knowledge of Cats had been hearing the chorus to "Memory" during late-late-night TV commercials for a very special music experience immortalized on vinyl and sold for the low, low price of what's-on-the-other-channel. Two hours later, I'm no closer to understanding Cats.
Cats begins with a bag containing Francesca-Hayward-as-a-cat dumped in an alley. It's nighttime in a digitally recreated version of the already fake-looking inner-city stage set familiar from old Hollywood movies. (A representation of a representation of a representation feels like a filmmaker risks generating a blackhole.)
And speaking of 1s and 0s, the inescapable bonkers thing about this movie is its presentation of the cats — human bodies onto which car fur, whiskers, ears and a tail have been digitally applied, while the actors retain their recognizable human faces and hands. Some cats move on all fours (kind of a monkey thing, really), while others walk upright. Many cats wear collars (where are their humans?!); a handful wear shoes, tuxedos or, inexplicably, fur coats. And just when you think you've gotten used to it — I'm a grizzled veteran of the Digitally Animated Epoch, I have seen things you people wouldn't believe — something horrifying jolts you back to WTF, like a cat with a human face UNZIPPING its furskin to reveal a SECOND furskin underneath.
In lieu of dialogue, there are songs, and no disrespect to T. S. Eliot (or perhaps, all disrespect), these lyrics are breathtakingly ponderous. To further express themselves, the actors arch their backs and point their feet and twist their necks. It's as akin to actual cat movement as kids running around in "dance" class flapping their hands to be "butterflies."
The film is an unholy melange of humans making cat moves — like head-nuzzling — and "cats" doing human things, like doffing top hats, walking upright and agreeing to be in a movie version of Cats. It only accentuates the artifice in ways that are profoundly unsettling, when one suspects the goal was "enchanting." This is the rare movie where the unknown supporting actors have a better lot than the marquee stars. Wrapped up in digital cat skin, nobody but their own kin will recognize them, and starting yesterday, they can deny they were ever in this.
There's a tubby tabby played by Rebel Wilson, who has the thankless role of being the chubby girl who gets hit in the face and falls down. There's the one played by James Corden who brings all his trademark try-hard, we're-having-fun-right! energy to his role as a preening bon vivant cat. Jennifer Hudson is a broken-down sad cat, a nightclub nellie leaning on a lamp post. For no particular reason, most cats are part-time entertainers — are there no cat waiters, no cat Uber drivers, and significantly, no cat talent agents to stop these cats from signing on to this mess?
The Idris Elba cat is also a witch, or a warlock, or has wandered over from the Harry Potter universe, because he frequently disappears into puffs of smoke. He also rudely disappears other cats, who then re-appear on a boat presided over by a cat version of Ray Winstone, who, of all the notable actors corralled into this film, looks the most pained to be there. Oh, and here's Judi Dench playing a sentient pile of cheap marmalade-colored fake-fur scraps. No, wait, I'm wrong: She is Old Deuteronomy, a cat named for the Fifth Book of Moses, who apparently sits in judgement of who is America's Next Top Model ... er ... the next Jellicle Choice.
Hayward is coded as the ingenue: perfectly styled with a near-nude full lip, kohl-rimmed yes, pert whiskers, and fur coordinated to her eye-shadow. Somebody gave Hayward one note to play and she commits. Her cat is all wide eyes, parted lips, craned neck, and artfully hunched shoulders. It is the body equivalent of the Instagram duck face.
I swear, half this movie is Hayward's gosh-golly reaction to whatever else is happening. It's pretty tiresome and dramatically static, and ultimately gives the film the vibe that everything has to be processed through the experience of the pretty blonde cat. Maybe this happens in the stage play, but I groaned loudly (it's cool, I'm the only one in here) when Hayward "solves" the only plot point: Who is the Top Chef, I mean, the Top Jellicle Cat? For a few brief moments, this singing-cat piffle steers hard into a Lifetime movie where it's Hayward's cat, with her pure heart, who becomes the instrument of redemption for Jennifer Hudson's homeless cat.
But toddling out from stage left is Ian McKellen as Gus the Theatre Cat, which is not a typo. He croaks out a self-deprecating song about the faded glory of whence he trod the boards, and it pains me to say this, but McKellen is enough of an old pro to almost make this work. I wasn't the only one touched. The cats in attendance are so appreciative that for the first time in the film — they all MEOW! Surely, he's a soft-shoe-in for the prize!
Competition arrives in the saucy shape of Skimbleshanks, the railway cat (described in a song as "the railway cat, the cat on the railway train," which is a phrase that consists only of words that mean "cat" and "train"). The exuberantly mustachioed Skimble is wearing high-waisted red pants with big brass buttons; a jaunty cap with a black patent-leather brim; suspenders nipped over a lush furry chest; and a collar from which hangs a couple of up-for-some-light-bondage chains. Bookmark this look for the next Folsom Street Fair!
And finally, what all this caterwauling and pussyfooting has been leading to: the close-up of a teary Jennifer Hudson singing "And I'm Telling You" ... no wait ... "Memory ... all alone in the moonlight ..." Sorry, Gus the Theatre Cat, but this kitty can sing and has a sadder backstory (even the Simon Cowell cat is misting up), and now cats and men alike realize that here is the true meaning of Christmas. Dame Judi Dench returns from cashing her check and declares, "You are the Jellicle Choice." The prize: a year's supply of Fancy Feast and a hot-air-balloon trip out of this movie.
Then came half-a-dozen false endings (perhaps a sly wink at the fabled nine lives of cats). Judi Dench got the last word, which was "a cat is not a dog" — or the answer to a question never posited — and delivered some unhelpful tips for cat owners, such as laying out a treat of "potted grouse."
I sat through the credits in case there was a bonus scene in which Gus the Theatre Cat joins the Avengers, but for my hopes, I only suffered through a new song penned by Cats creator Andrew LLoyd Webber and Taylor Swift (is there nothing she can't do?). The lyrics spoke perhaps of future days when Cats the movie would be subsumed into some foggy recess of the brain where fragments of ill-conceived movies tumble in a benign jumble. Let's all sing: "The memories were lost long ago ..."
Editor's note: This review has been updated after discovering that its author confused some of the actors covered in fur. The main lady cat is portrayed by Francesca Hayward, not Taylor Swift as previously stated. (Swift is barely in the film, appearing once during the talent show.) Sorry to that cat!