A movie can be transfixing without exactly being good. You might want to sneak back to see it twice, or six or seven times, yet you’re reluctant to recommend it to your friends. You remind yourself that bad taste is better than no taste. And for the eighth time, or perhaps the ninth, you return to Tom Hooper’s sometimes tacky, sometimes overworked, and yet often strangely beautiful Cats.
Who needs a CGI movie version of the outrageously popular, long-running musical featuring songs by incessant tune generator Andrew Lloyd Webber, which were themselves adapted liberally from a slim volume of light verse published in 1939 by T.S. Eliot, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats? I certainly thought I didn’t, and perhaps you think you don’t either. In the months leading to its release—or at least since summer, when a making-of promotional video introduced the world to the highly scientific concept of “digital fur technology”—Cats has become one of the most eagerly anticipated and joyously maligned pictures of the holiday season. As people gazed at trailers for the film, straining to reckon with the vision of nude-looking cat people prancing around in fur that looked as if it had been airbrushed onto their skin, a collective wordless cry rang out through the Internet. It sounded like “Eww.”
But once you’re immersed in the full-strength version of Cats, you begin to view the fur-skin epidermal surface covering of its principals as normal, and this is when you know you’ve gone too far to be saved. The plot is dumb: A shy white kitten is dumped by terrible rich people in the middle of a London street. Her name is Victoria—she’s played by movie newcomer Francesca Hayward, a principal dancer with the Royal Ballet—and she’s welcomed by the other street cats, a tribe known as Jellicles, with curiosity and protectiveness. The members of this ragtag little group—including ringleader Munkustrap (Robbie Fairchild), suave street troubadour Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo) and a whole litter of others—dance around Victoria, and with her, as they fill her in on their signature custom: On the night of the Jellicle Moon, they hold a Jellicle Ball, where one special Jellicle is chosen by the Jellicles’ grand dame, Old Deuteronomy (a regal Judi Dench, channeling more than a few whiffs of Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion). This honor is called the Jellicle Choice, which may sound like the title of a ‘70s horror movie starring Samantha Eggar but is really at least slightly more benign: It just means the chosen Jellicle gets to float off into the sky to lead a new life.
But there is evil afoot in Jellicleville: The scheming mack daddy known as Macavity (an outrageously seductive Idris Elba) is trying to sabotage the event by cat-napping Jellicles and transporting them to a barge on the Thames. (The ruffian who guards them is Ray Winstone’s shaggy, snarling Growltiger.) And he has already ruined the life of one Jellicle: Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson) drifts mournfully through the streets, draped in a ragged fur wrap, a tragic fallen angel. Scorned by the other cats for going off with Macavity, she sings a very sad-sounding song called “Memory,” whose lyrics make absolutely no sense.
Some parts of Cats, like the scene in which Taylor Swift’s kitty chanteuse Bombalurina descends from a hanging crescent moon to sprinkle glitter catnip over her feline admirers, are gaudily enjoyable. Some parts are just clever in a trying-too-hard way, like a scene in which Rebel Wilson, as marmalade house guardian Jennyanydots, presides over a birthday cake decorated with singing, dancing cockroaches outfitted like Busby Berkeley dancers—the sequence screams “fun” so loudly that it ceases to be fun.
But the production design, courtesy of Eve Stewart, is marvelous, a fantasy world that riffs, astutely, on the 1970s nostalgia for all things 1920s: There’s an Egyptian-themed theater filled with cat statues, and an art deco Milk Bar that looks like it might have been lifted from the short-lived but legendary 1970s London department store Biba, a palace of commerce made up of extravagantly decorated, themed departments. (The movie also owes a debt to Ken Russell’s mad, art-deco-rococo 1971 extravaganza The Boy Friend.) And the dancing, choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler—who won a Tony for Hamilton—is wonderful, a swirl of action abetted by the twirling of tails and the twitching of ears that, surprisingly, rarely feels manic. The sequence featuring the French dance duo Les Twins is a particular delight, a sinuous, scrappy routine with a scruff of elegance around its edges.
But Hayward’s Victoria is the movie’s one true star. Her agility and poise are captivating; if much of Cats is bad-good, she’s nothing but good-good. Over the years, plenty of people have noted the not-so-subtle eroticism of Cats: This was a show, and now a movie, in which dancers slither around sensuously, rubbing their pheromones all over one another’s cheeks. And there’s no doubt Victoria has the most alluring digital-fur costume, a sleek coating of whipped vanilla dashed with pale butterscotch stripes. She does look sort of naked, in a Marilyn Monroe, Happy Birthday Mr. President kind of way.
But it’s all innocent enough, especially once you enter the enchanted forest of Hayward’s dancing. There’s precision in her every movement, though nothing ever feels calculated—Hayward expresses Victoria’s sense of wonder, as a newcomer into this particular feline society, with an exuberant leap here, a gracefully curved arm there. Her face is part of the dance: The open-hearted eagerness of her expression suits her character perfectly—all that digital-fur-technology folderol melts away in the context of her realness. Hayward is the very best thing about Cats, a movie that, like cats themselves, is otherwise filled with contradictions. Cats is terrible, but it’s also kind of great. And, to cat-burgle a phrase from Eliot himself, there’s nothing at all to be done about that.