I feel like there are a few things I should preface before this review. I am into theater, and really like musicals (I even liked the Tom Hooper version of Les Miserables), so I had already obviously been aware of Cats 2019. When the trailer came out, I think people reacted poorly because the characters look like people – not cats – but that’s what the original is, so it didn’t bother me at all.
But this is about where my knowledge ends. Other than the ‘Memory’ song, and the general idea that there wasn’t really much of a plot in the stage show, I had no prior impressions.
That being said, as the days counted down to my viewing of this movie, I found myself getting more and more excited about the prospect of seeing it. Let me be clear, in the four days before this movie, I watched all 10 previous Star Wars movies, and then attended a showing of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, and somehow was *still* more blindly excited for Cats. I was prepared for it to be a trainwreck that was funny in how bad it was, and mostly laughable because of the absurdity of it all. Surprisingly this was not the case.
Cats 2019 lives in a weird place in my head, because unlike all other things I’ve properly reviewed, I don’t necessarily ‘like it’ or ‘not like it’. There are a few movies like this for me – when you see 60+ new releases in the year, it happens. But I didn’t think Cats would be one of them.
There are certainly a few things that really bothered me, but there were more than a few things that I did really enjoy. When this movie works, it really works. I think Tom Hooper did an excellent job in transferring this adaptation to the screen, and more so, Andy Blankenbuehler did an incredible job in modernizing the performances – but I’ll elaborate on that later.
So, let me begin with the few things that bothered me. One of the more annoying ones is hard to describe. I’m inclined to say ‘the cast,’ but I don’t know that having anyone different could’ve fixed the issue.
If you’ve seen any of the trailers you’ll be very aware of the star-power of this movie. Dame Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Idris Elba, James Corden, the list goes on. Most of these celebrities play really very minor roles in the movie, and are more used to get people to come see it – as in, “Come see Cats starring Rebel Wilson” rather than, “Come see Cats, with the strange singing CGI animals.” But even with these minor roles, characters like Rebel Wilson-cat and James Corden-cat still manage to feel annoying and unnecessary. None of their one-liner “funny” banter occurred in any of the songs, and as a result felt like more of an obligation from the producers than an actual moment from the director.
The single thing that bothered me the most, though, was the scale. That is, the sizing of objects in relation to the cats, or even in relation to other objects. It’s one thing if a stage production of Cats the Musical has props that aren’t all directly proportionate to the cats themselves or the set around them, but when the $95M budget film version does it, it comes off as absurd.
It sounds like a minor gripe, but it really was very noticeable in some parts of the movie. It’s very hard to describe in text alone, but even if you’re not looking for it, I think you’ll definitely see it when you watch the movie. It’s even visible in some shots of the trailer – look at the surrounding objects and scenery during the Rebel Wilson shots.
The last thing I wasn’t the biggest fan of, was the new original song. For the soundtrack of this version, they actually stayed mostly true to the 80s-synth-style backing tracks of the original, which I think made it a lot more fun and exciting. It certainly worked with the visual look they were trying to go for. But, as is the case with movie musicals, they added a new song that was not in the original. This track, ‘Beautiful Ghosts,’ was co-written by Taylor Swift and original composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, and it’s very easy to tell who wrote which parts.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a very big Taylor Swift fan, but when this very stylized neon-dreamscape musical experience turns into a Taylor Swift music video halfway through, it feels very out of place. The same could be said about Swift’s take on the ‘Macavity’ track from the original. I like her songs, but she doesn’t have a very theatrical voice, and as a result, that otherwise totally fine scene feels like Taylor Swift running around in a cat outfit.
Conversely, as I started to say, I really enjoyed nearly all of the rest of the songs. Jason Derulo and Jennifer Hudson are the major players here, and they really make it worth their while. James Corden obviously entertains. But this starts to touch on another issue I had, the lack of spotlight for the rest of its cast.
The ‘main character’ of the movie is played by Francesca Hayward, a principal ballerina at the Royal Ballet, but she isn’t shown very often. I’m okay with this because she’s actually the most uninteresting of all of the cats – her character isn’t in the original, she just plays the role of the audience, to whom many of the songs are directly sung in the original. But I think the best performances come from Robbie Fairchild and Laurie Davidson. They have gotten absolutely zero public press, but are far and away the most entertaining members of the cast.
Visually this movie is a treat, if you can look past the scaling issue. With Andy Blankenbuehler – of Hamilton and In the Heights fame – it’s no surprise the choreography was amazing. Even the simple addition of tail-choreography (something not possible in the stage version), works so well. I noticed too that the director was very successful in making the audience aware of the position of each independent cat at all times, a sure challenge with such a large ensemble that’s always on screen. This made it feel like a stage production that was just filmed, rather than a movie version of a musical.
I thought the experience, as a whole, was fun. It has its lows, which every production does, but it never stopped being entertaining. That’s what makes it so conflicting to rank amongst other movies this year. Was it bad? Aspects, yes. I didn’t even touch on the objectively off-putting CGI, but that’s because during some parts of the movie it’s not even noticeable because of how fun the numbers are. But it wasn’t terrible by any means.
I think if you don’t like musicals, you won’t like Cats, because the barrier to entry is pretty unforgiving, even for the stage version. But if you do, you’re likely already able to look past all of its shortcomings to appreciate the parts you will like even more.
Maybe the real cat was the friends we made along the way.