Movie Review: 'Cats' is sad, and not in a good way

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Taylor Swift in Tom Hooper's 'Cats.'
Taylor Swift in Tom Hooper's 'Cats.' (Universal)

There is one big holiday movie release that has everyone obsessing about spoilers. It's not Little Women, based on a 19th century novel, and it's not Cats, which has been around so long that Prince was trying to get tickets to the original Broadway run back when he toured through New York in 1982.

Would it even be possible to spoil a movie that doesn't really have a plot? It's Cats. It's about cats. As the trailers have pointed out, possibly causing a dead poet to roll a few more times in his grave, Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical is based on T.S. Eliot's collection Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats.

The stage production has become both a longstanding smash success and a sort of running gag in pop culture. If you need a musical to serve as the punchline in a joke, you go with Cats. When Liza Minnelli struggled to turn off a lamp in the classic Kristen Wiig sketch, she was trying to get out the door to see Cats. It's Cats!

For all the love/hate reactions the show has inspired onstage, it at least makes a kind of sense in a theatrical context. A series of human performers, dressed like cats, come out and sing about their lives. As cats. In the end, one cat essentially gets picked as the best cat, which you knew she would because she goes last and gets the best song ("Memory").

A new screen adaptation directed by Tom Hooper (The King's Speech, Les Misérables) has been earning buzz for three reasons, in chronological order: (1) It's the Cats movie. Cats! (2) It has an insanely star-studded cast including Artist of the Decade Taylor Swift. (3) A truly cracked trailer that reveals the cats in Cats are portrayed as cat-sized cats that look like humans in CGI-enhanced cat suits and mostly walk on two legs. Check it out; it's even crazier than it sounds.

The trailer's inspired people around the world to pre-order tickets for the Dec. 20 opening of what looks to be an absolutely wild, over-the-top movie that makes all your most absurd live-musical dreams come true. My advice: stay home and watch the trailer on loop for two hours.

Cats as a movie turns out to be a strangely tortuous experience, although it looks just like the trailer and has all those people in it and is already spawning debates over what got digitally enhanced and what got digitally...um, reduced.

The sight of cat-sized humans remains unsettling at feature length, with all the actors seeming to decide for themselves when they will and will not affect cat-like mannerisms. Ian McKellen may be the only one to attempt communication with a string of literal "meows," and his Gus also seems to be the only cat who rubs his face along a vertical surface, although paw-licking and ear-slicking are rampant among the Jellicles.

Wait, what are the Jellicles? Even after seeing the movie I sure can't tell you, although the aspiration of Victoria (perpetually starry-eyed newcomer Francesca Hayward) to become one is a running theme. Dame Judi Dench plays Old Deuteronomy, the old cat who gets to pick a single deserving Jellicle to very literally ascend to a new and better life...in other words, to gratefully and tearfully die. Probably. Up there in the clouds somewhere.

Therein lies, as it were, the rub. ("Meow!" says Sir Ian.) Despite the trailer's manic energy, Cats is actually a very slow, somber show. It's so quiet that you'll surely hear The Rise of Skywalker booming in from the next theater. The cats take long pauses between, and even during, their many sad ballads, and the upbeat numbers are such a mess of confused animation that it's hard to enjoy the very real hoofing these uncanny mammals do.

Plus, unless you come in with a solid working knowledge of exactly what's supposed to be going on, nothing makes any sense. Who is Macavity (Idris Elba in colored contacts and an almost obscenely well-muscled cat suit), and how and why does he keep making cats literally disappear? Are there human-size humans in this universe? The cats imply as much, but the humans remain unseen...even in Trafalgar Square during the broad daylight, where the stone lions look like they desperately want to be excluded from the whole feline fiasco.

Let it not be said that these cats don't have commitment. James Corden struts merrily about making fat jokes in a fat suit, and Rebel Wilson does her damnedest to stoke genuine amusement with utterly unfunny bits that include smacking herself in the head with a giant chain.

Jennifer Hudson plays Grizabella, a destitute cat who doesn't initially get invited to the Jellicles' party but ultimately shows up with a whopper of a weeper that Hooper stages in unwavering close-up like Anne Hathaway's acclaimed "I Dream a Dream" from Les Misérables. Hudson puts her heart and her considerable pipes into "Memory," but fails to make the same impact because we haven't seen much of her character, it's not quite clear what she's remembering, and also, she's a cat.

Those are the highlights. There's much, much more dancing and prowling and singing and glowering, all presented with the gravity of a documentary about glacial melt. Lloyd Webber's chords — still played faithfully on pealing synths, just like back in the '80s — drift by, until it's time for another pause to let us think again about what we don't get and why we don't care.

Finally Swift shows up, full of coy glances and sly sashays in the role of Elba's hench-cat, there to distract the Jellicles while they get drugged with catnip to help ensure Elba's selection as the Jellicle Choice. Swift's sheer star power has an ironically vivifying effect on the audience, but then she disappears and we're soon back to hearing Dame Judi sing, repeatedly and very slowly, about the fact that cats aren't dogs. I wish I were joking.

Cats may become a sort of cult classic, in the same sense as the Star Wars Holiday Special: so spectacularly bad that you sit through an objectively taxing experience just to say you did it. Cats!


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