Review: Cats (2019)


You’re gonna need a pick-me-up: Working TitleFilms/Amblin Entertainment

I’m not trying to offend anyone who genuinely enjoys Andrew Lloyd Webber’s smash hit musical – I like some strange things too – but I personally found CATS on stage unbearable. Even the better songs on the soundtrack just cling to your brain like limpets rather than speaking to your heart. I was expecting Tom Hooper’s film adaptation to be at least as terrible, and it is bad, but in some unusual ways and not to the extent that it’s so bad it’s good.

Abandoned cat Victoria (Francesca Hayward) is found by a tribe of Jellicle cats and prepared for the Jellicle Ball where one cat will be chosen to leave this world for a better one.

Cats as an IP has always had a problem with presenting a compelling story. You can look forward to nearly two hours of every key player introducing themselves in a shallow song describing what their deal is and not doing a lot else. Oh, and everyone’s praying for death and rebirth into whoever they want to be (presumably still a cat). Visually, it could have been as unique an experience as many audiences enjoy on stage, but we all know how the VFX turned out, don’t we?

When you’re not swept up at all by a story and feel no connection to the, well let’s be charitable and call them characters, you notice things you shouldn’t. Who decided which cats do and don’t wear shoes? Who decided to give everyone whiskers but leave human noses and eyebrows? Actors’ faces uncannily grafted to furry, sexless, bottomless bodies (particularly noticeable considering how long some cats spend spread-eagled doing cat tings in the film) was disturbing enough, but then there’s the cockroaches and the m…m-mice…mice with children’s faces. Shudder!

To be fair, you can’t say that the ensemble cast don’t commit, but most of them seem to be in different movies to the others. Francesca Hayward is a solid lead but Victoria isn’t given anything to do besides sing the new song and be in the background of everyone else’s sequences. Playing it far straighter than the material deserves you have Judi Dench and Ian McKellen, but they also stretch out in a basket and lap from a saucer, respectively. Jennifer Hudson blows everyone away as expected in the dramatic singing stakes (as whoever gets to sing “Memories” tends to do) but James Corden, Rebel Wilson and Idris Elba are pretty bad, full-stop; either on autopilot or relying on their usual schtick.

I don’t think you could accuse it of complete incompetence – there are good singers and dancers in this, the set designs are unique, there’s two pretty well-mounted and entertaining musical numbers (the tap extravaganza “Skimbleshanks” and Taylor Swift’s showstopper “Macavity”). But even the “good” sequences that get by on dancing technical skill or showmanship have too much of an unfinished CG sheen, with the performers popping alarmingly against the backgrounds much as their faces pop against their bodies and the scale of the human world they inhabit the lower portion of remains distractingly inconsistent.

Cats is a bad film and a bad idea from conception. A combination of an unfinished, frightening aesthetic, ping-ponging tone and the musical not being all that to begin with makes it a really difficult watch. The cast don’t phone it in, but most elements that make up the movie should have either been dialed back and refined or pumped all the way up for pure entertainment value. Is it quite bad enough to become a cult classic? Probably not on its own terms, but we’ve got memes now, so who knows… SSP

About Sam Sewell-Peterson

Writer and film fanatic fond of black comedies, sci-fi, animation and films about dysfunctional families.
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