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20° & RAINY ON FRIDAY 24 JANUARY IN AUCKLAND
By Sarah Ward
December 23, 2019
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Cats

This nightmarish, nonsensical musical is a catastrophe — even with its all-star cast.
By Sarah Ward
December 23, 2019
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In case you don't already know, Cats is about moggies and mousers called Jellicle cats. If that means nothing to you, then you might want to keep it that way — unless you like overblown, nonsensical musicals that take place around a pile of trash, a sign if ever there was one. The word 'Jellicle' won't actually mean anything to you once you've seen Tom Hooper's adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's popular theatre production, either, but you will have heard the term more times than any human or feline should. Cats devotes its opening song-and-dance number, called 'Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats', to explaining what Jellicle means; however the track only really succeeds in being repetitive and silly. The tune is basically Cats' equivalent of 90s hit 'Blue', using the same lyrics over and over until nothing means anything and you're praying for it to finish.

The film's busy, jerky, bewildering opening — staged to initiate the wide-eyed Victoria (ballet dancer Francesca Hayward) into the Jellicle cats — is indicative of what's to come. As the song drags on, it also inspires questions that'll keep popping up: 'why?', 'how?' and 'what the?'. Those unfamiliar with Cats, the musical that's been prowling the stage since 1981, will be hard-pressed to understand its long-running appeal. You'll equally wonder how anyone could think it should get the big-screen treatment. Just because special effects can now cover humans with CGI fur, it doesn't mean that it should be done. And that fur, plus the twitching whiskers and ears that go with it (and the human breasts but lack of genitals, too), appear nightmarish at worst and distracting at best.

After Victoria is abandoned in a London alley, and after Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo) and his purring crew meow the word Jellicle at her relentlessly, she still has much to learn. It's the night of the Jellicle ball, where the Jellicle cats compete — and when the Jellicle choice will be made. Whoever is deemed the ultimate Jellicle by matriarch Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) will ascend to the Heaviside Layer and be reborn. So, the lazy Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson), debonair Bustopher Jones (James Corden) and their four-legged brethren all sing their cat-sized hearts out. Alas, master criminal Macavity (Idris Elba) is also scampering about, attempting to trick his way to glory.

Let's address the obvious hairball: these felines want to howl and caterwaul so they can float into the sky, die, then be resurrected for the next of their nine lives. That's a ridiculous, overtly religious concept, and it always feels the case in Cats. More kitties scramble around, competing and introducing themselves via song, but they can't croon past the baffling premise. That doesn't stop them from trying, including magician cat Mr Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson), outcast Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson), cat-burgling duo Mungojerrie (Danny Collins) and Rumpleteazer (Naoimh Morgan), and elder statesman Gus the Theatre Cat (Ian McKellen). Those eager for Taylor Swift's catty moment as the mischievous Bombalurina, who drugs her fellow critters with catnip, will be waiting a while — and for just one slinky number.

Cats is a sung-through musical, barely uttering a word that isn't belted out, which doesn't improve the storyline either. Lloyd Webber based the stage version on TS Eliot's poetry collection Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats and, even with Hooper (Les Miserables) and Lee Hall (Rocketman) tackling the film's screenplay, it's just a bunch of kitty ditties flung together like a dog's breakfast. That might've been entertaining enough if the tunes had emotional heft, but they don't. Even famed ballad 'Memory' feels thin and that's the cowering Hudson's only substantial contribution. New Swift and Lloyd Webber-penned track 'Beautiful Ghosts' is similarly forgettable, although it does provide a noticeably quieter pace amid all the unconvincing feline razzle-dazzle.

Consequently, Cats is something you endure — like emptying a cat's litter tray — with Hooper's flick failing to sink in its claws in any meaningful manner. The performances reach pantomime levels, perhaps to help you forget that Elba, Dench and McKellen are prancing, crawling and licking milk from saucers. (Or, so you don't ask why some cats don suspenders, others are naked, and Old Deut resembles The Wizard of Oz's Cowardly Lion.) Even beneath the special effects, every aspect of the movie looks like it's taking place on a stage, which is hardly immersive. Worse, Hooper can't decide if he wants to zip around amongst the cats, peer too closely at their faces or watch their dancing from afar, making the film as disjointed in its cinematography as it is elsewhere. 2019 hasn't been kind to singing cats on-screen, but at least The Lion King's uncanny photo-realistic jungle beasts didn't seem like they were staging a cat version of that other terrible recent musical: The Greatest Showman. Real-life cute kitties deserve far better than this catastrophe.

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