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"CATS"
(2019) (Francesca Hayward, Idris Elba) (PG)


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QUICK TAKE:
Musical: A number of anthropomorphic cats compete to see who will be granted a new feline life.
PLOT:
In London there exists a tribe of anthropomorphic cats known as Jellicles that possess both feline and human characteristics, including the ability to speak. Once a year they get together where one such cat is chosen to ascend to the Heaviside Layer and return as a new feline. New to observe all of this is outsider cat Victoria (FRANCESCA HAYWARD) who's unceremoniously dumped among the Jellicles, with one of them, Munkustrap (ROBBIE FAIRCHILD), deciding to introduce her to the rest.

There's lazy housecat Jennyanydots (REBEL WILSON) who's taught mice, cockroaches and more to perform song and dance numbers for her, while fat cat Bustopher Jones (JAMES CORDEN) enjoys raiding the local trash cans for a feast. Rum Tum Tugger (JASON DERULO) is the most flamboyant of the bunch, even more so than magician cat Mr. Mistoffelees (LAURIE DAVIDSON), while Rumpleteazer (NAOIMH MORGAN) and Mungojerrie (DANNY COLLINS) are cat burglars and Gus The Theatre Cat (IAN McKELLEN) is, natch, the feline that inhabits the local theater.

It's there that the old and wise Jellicle leader, Old Deuteronomy (JUDI DENCH), will select the cat to make the ascension to a new life. While everyone gets their one song and dance number in the competition, Victoria thinks it should be the once glamorous but now outcast Grizabella (JENNIFER HUDSON) who fell out of favor with the rest for siding in the past with the criminal Macavity (IDRIS ELBA). He's intent on winning the competition, and with the help of Bombalurina (TAYLOR SWIFT) and barge cat Growltiger (RAY WINSTONE) he begins cat-napping the various competitors to ensure he's the one chosen.

OUR TAKE: 3 out of 10
Just like some animal offspring imprint on whatever they first see as their mother, sometimes children can imprint on whatever sort of pet is the first they encounter in their home. For me, it was our cat, Kitty Boo, who was present before I was born and hung around until I was in my teens.

Call it love at first sight or what have you, but I absolutely adore kitties and will stop to pet any that come across my path. Heck, that's most likely the reason that the NFL team I latched onto as a tyke was the Detroit Lions despite having never been to the Motor City (feel free to send sympathy cards for my decades of suffering).

All of that said, I've never once had an inkling to see the musical "Cats" despite it running on and off Broadway for an eternity. While I thought it was interesting to hear that some of the feline adorned cast members would enter the audience and do cat-like things, something about the rest of it just seemed to rub me the wrong way and I never felt the urge to see it.

Thus, upon sitting down for our press screening of director Tom Hooper's big screen (and non-animated) adaptation, I knew nothing about the flick outside of it having one famous song, "Memories," that the cast would be mimicking cats in somewhat creepy, near fetishsy cosplay like costumes and that Taylor Swift not only created a new song for the production, but was also going to appear.

So, and in keeping with that megastar's recent hit, I tried to "shake it off" in terms of any preconceived notions of what I was about to experience. And you know what? It was weirder than I had imagined. When asked by a studio rep what I thought right after seeing it, I said it felt like an LSD trip, or at least what I picture that would be like, what with never having done that or any similar hallucinogenic drug.

It's sort of akin to a modern-day "Alice in Wonderland" where you go down the rabbit hole (or litter box in this case) and encounter anthropomorphized cats that slink around mostly upright, talk (but sing a great deal more), have ears, whiskers and quite active tails but also human hands and feet (and for some, the shape of breasts beneath the fur) and do a lot of dancing, including ballet-style moves.

But something about all of them just looks and feels off, like a science (or in this case, special effects and costuming) experiment gone awry. Part of that stems from the all-too-obvious visual fact that the scale of the cats in proportion to their surroundings keeps changing in odd, nearly surreal ways. Hooper might be trying to hide some of that by having the camera in near-constant motion, but it really doesn't help matters.

And there really isn't much plot to speak of. The original musical stemmed from Andrew Lloyd Webber experimenting with writing lyrics stemming from T.S. Eliot's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats," and while the resultant songs (and costumes) might have worked on the stage, none of that transfers that well to the big screen.

Most of the characters (played by the likes of Idris Elba, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, James Corden, Rebel Wilson and so on) are one-note and like their auditions to be chosen for a new life (yes, that's essentially it for the story) they aren't given much time to make much of a lasting impression.

It also doesn't help that most of those songs, at least to my musically untrained ears, really aren't that good. Aside from the aforementioned "Memories" (given here to Jennifer Hudson to perform) and one titled "Macavity the Mystery Cat," the rest are unremarkable and instantly forgettable. At least Swift's new addition (sung by a different feline -- played somewhat innocently yet alluringly by Francesca Hayward -- during the main story and then the pop star during the end credits) has a haunting Broadway vibe to it.

But the only thing you might end up haunted by is the unsettling and sometimes creepy and just plain weird aura that permeates the proceedings. All of that said, I can sort of imagine this becoming a cult favorite -- and certainly a cosplay one -- along the lines of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." But at least that one had a good soundtrack (really, it does) and clearly knew it was nothing but camp.

For this one, I'm still slack-jawed and trying to process what I witnessed. Fans of the stage production might enjoy all or parts of it, but even with my love of cats in general, I couldn't force myself to love or even like this offering. Weird just about any and every way one looks at it, "Cats" rates as a 3 out of 10 simply for just that.




Reviewed December 17, 2019 / Posted December 20, 2019


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