Sometimes, you watch a movie just feeling your brow furrow. If I look older this week, you can thank “Cats” the movie, which I watched in what can only be described as shell-shocked puzzlement, as questions rose up around me. Why do all the cats stand like they’re in a Bob Fosse show? Why is the scale of things so weirdly inconsistent — in the same scene, one cat successfully wears human shoes while another wears a human ring as a bracelet? Why is one cat, and only one, wearing pants? What is Idris Elba doing here? And am I understanding the plot correctly: These cats are all vying to go to the Heavyside Layer, which basically means that the winner, um, dies?
As a person hopelessly fond of both cats in the abstract and the “Cats” musical specifically (it was the first Broadway show I ever saw, many years ago, and yes I still know all the lyrics), I approached this week’s screening with some hope, but only the teeniest bit. I had seen the trailers, and I am but human — this thing, with its people-in-strange-CGI-cat-suits, looked weird. And yes, “Cats” the movie is deeply, deeply weird, and not in a good way. Tom Hooper, whose “Les Misérables” showed he’s not entirely reliable with musicals (remember how Russell Crowe, in trying to sing, forgot how to act?), directed it; my cat could have possibly done better.
“Cats” the movie echoes the long-running stage show, which is basically a handful of T.S. Eliot poems about cats set to music; the movie adds a bit of dialogue and catsplains a few plot elements. It’s a competition to go to the Heavyside Layer and be “reborn,” we’re told, so every cat will sing a song about themselves. (We could maybe have figured this song part out?) Victoria (Royal Ballet dancer Francesca Hayward, a lovely presence) is at its center; a stray cat newly abandoned in central London, who wants to find a place in the herd. Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) is the group’s matriarch; Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson) its ravaged outcast; Macavity (Elba) its bad boy, and so on.
I remember how dazzling the dancing was when I first saw the stage show; the dancers seemed to become felines before my eyes, softly falling and stretching and jumping in a spotlight’s beam. “Cats” the movie has dancing in it, too — and some remarkable dancers, including Hayward, former New York City Ballet principal Robbie Fairchild and internationally acclaimed hip-hop duo Les Twins — but Hooper’s so busy moving the camera with every bar of the music, he kills the impact of it. (Blink and you’ll miss Les Twins.) And the choreography, by Andy Blankenbuehler (“Hamilton”), mishmashes every imaginable genre of dance into a muddle. Your eye can never linger, and so the movement doesn’t resonate; it’s just a bunch of people in cat suits jumping around. (This is not, alas, a descriptor that will sell tickets.)
Some of these people — Dench, Elba, James Corden, Ian McKellen (whose smile at the end of the Gus the Theater Cat song is the movie’s sweetest moment) — fare reasonably well; some less so. Hudson sings “Memory” like she’s mad at it (this Grizabella is super-irritated about having to wait for the sunrise); Rebel Wilson, as Jennyannydots, looks faintly embarrassed; Taylor Swift, barely in the movie, doesn’t do much to justify the grand entrance she gets.
By the final scene, by which my eyebrows were hurting from being raised so high (the winning cat goes to the Heavyside Layer in a chandelier? What is this, “Phantom of the Opera”?), I was just tired. As was “Cats.” Meow.
★½ “Cats,” with James Corden, Judi Dench, Jason Derulo, Idris Elba, Jennifer Hudson, Ian McKellen, Taylor Swift, Rebel Wilson, Francesca Hayward. Directed by Tom Hooper, from a screenplay by Lee Hall and Hooper, based on the musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and the book by T.S. Eliot. 109 minutes. Rated PG for peril, some thematic elements and rude humor. Opens Dec. 20 at multiple theaters.