This year, some of Hollywood’s holiday presents, like Great Gerwig’s “Little Women,” are movie treasures. Others, like the bizarre “Cats” and the disappointing new “Star Wars” are the cinematic equivalent of getting coal in your stocking.
Although “Cats” was roundly derided by critics when it opened in London in 1981, the fan favorite ran for decades on Broadway and in the West End and spawned countless national and international tours. Now director Tom Hooper (“Les Misérables” and “The Danish Girl”) has brought the musical to the big screen; it wasn’t worth the effort.
With a score by Andrew Lloyd Webber, “Cats” is based on a rather slender book of light poetry by T. S. Eliot with additional lyrics, including the song “Memory,” supplied by director Trevor Nunn. The songs introduce the various “Jellicles,” members of a tribe of alley-cats who have gathered for the “Jellicle Ball” where one of them will be chosen to ascend to “the Heavyside Layer” and be reborn.
The paper-thin plot of the stage musical is “enhanced” for the movie with an inconsistent focus on the Kitten Victoria who is presented as a new arrival in the alley; she gets to sing “Beautiful Ghosts,” a dull new song by Lloyd Webber and cast member Taylor Swift.
On stage, Lloyd Webber’s light-weight score was at least supported by John Napier’s clever costume designs, Gillian Lynne’s endlessly inventive choreography and Nunn’s confident direction. Unfortunately, without a strong hand on the helm, the movie musical is an unsightly mess.
The numbers were performed live by the cast on a soundstage; costumes and sets were digitally added afterwards. In theory, the CGI should work fine; in practice, as Disney also learned this summer, CGI is still not very lifelike. The sets, which are supposed to show human objects from a feline perspective, are poorly rendered and inconsistently lit. The digital costumes are a visual nightmare. The color palette is ugly; the ears and tails move at random and are distracting; the hands and feet look human instead of feline and the design is annoyingly inconsistent. Some of the cats wear coats, hats, jewelry and even a jumpsuit (!) and others just have basic faux-fur. It’s confusing and distracting.
The choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler is generally lackluster and the cast can’t quite agree on how to best impersonate a cat. The acting is uneven and generally weak. Rebel Wilson and James Corden pander shamelessly (and ineffectively) for laughs; Francesca Hayward, a principal ballerina at the Royal Ballet, moves divinely but needed a much better acting coach on set. One of the few actors to offer an effective performance is Robbie Fairchild as Munkustrap, who serves as an emcee of sorts throughout the evening.
Despite all of this, there are some memorable moments in “Cats.” Taylor Swift turns in a powerhouse performance of “Macavity” and Jennifer Hudson’s rendition of “Memory” soars into the stratosphere. Sir Ian McKellen is quite touching as Gus, the Theatre Cat, especially in his interplay with Dame Judi Dench as Old Deuteronomy; they somehow manage to bring deep emotion and sly humor to shallow lyrics.
But don’t bother to watch the entire movie; you can catch these moments on YouTube.
A final word of warning. The songs of “Cats” are terrible earworms. Since the lyrics are very repetitive and the derivative melodies are generally undeveloped and unresolved, they can echo in your brain for a long time.
SIDEBAR: A spoiler-free discussion of ‘Star Wars’ (doesn’t have to run)
As the endless Internet battles indicate, it is not entirely possible to write rationally about the “Star Wars” franchise and the recently released final installment of the original saga, “Star Wars: Episode IX — The Rise of Skywalker” proves no exception to the rule. Objectively, the new movie is a hot mess, but the return of beloved characters packs a powerful emotional punch.
The convoluted plot of Episode IX somehow brings together every “Star Wars” character (dead or alive) from the Emperor Palpatine to the Ewoks (with the exception, of course, of Jar Jar Binks). Led by General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher seen in fuzzy outtakes from the previous installment of the story), the Rebel Alliance is still fighting the First Order/Final Order (Richard E. Grant makes a terrific addition to the Emperor’s leadership circle).
Filled with great wisecracks and gnomic intergalactic koans, the first 90 minutes of the movie are a serviceable action adventure film filled with exciting battle scenes and the mandatory Hamlet-esque discussions about the Force and the Dark Side. But at a certain point, the plot loses narrative coherence and the storytelling loses momentum. As the movie stumbles to a close, J. J. Abrams the director is unable to save J. J. Abrams the screenwriter (Oscar-winner Chris Terrio shares the screenwriting mantle). Abrams is much more effective as the voice of a fun new droid named D-O.
All too often, Abrams and Terrio depend on a “Leia ex machina” to save the day. When they’ve written themselves into a corner, they rely on clumsy telepathic interventions to solve the problem. These quickly become laughable.
Overall, the cast performs admirably, balancing humor, passion and bravado with remarkable finesse. In an interesting twist, Anthony Daniels brings an unexpected depth to C-3PO; Naomi Ackie (Jannah), Keri Russell (Zorii Bliss) and Shirley Henderson (Babu Frik) are wonderful additions to the ensemble.
Sadly, some of the returning characters are reduced to walk-ons; Kelly Marie Tran (Rose Tico) gets almost no screen time at all.
But Rose and the other returning characters still get cheers when they appear on the screen and the finale is greeted with both ovations and sniffles. It’s hard to beat the undeniable appeal of a Wookie and his friends.
A final note to J. J. Abrams. A fleeting kiss between two women in the final moments of the movie does not count as a “lesbian kiss.” It’s a very brief moment between a very minor character and an unnamed extra. We don’t know who these characters are. This doesn’t count as LGBT representation. You owe us one, sir.