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Weird Digital Fur Aside, Cats Movie Is Catnip for True Diehards

If you love the show, you'll love the movie. If you hate the show, well, you'll just go see Star Wars.

A scene from the new movie version of Cats.
(© Universal Pictures)

"What ... the f*ck ... was that?" the guy next to me in the movie theater asked, completely at a loss.

"That's just Cats," I replied. "Now and forever."

I could begin by telling you about Tom Hooper and Lee Hall's screen adaptation of the beloved (or reviled) Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. I could tell you how they've consolidated the two-and-a-half-hour show into 110 minutes and how they've given it a point of view and (gasp) plot. I could tell you what got cut (''Pekes and Pollicles," we hardly knew ye) or whether they've taken the synths out of the orchestrations (they haven't).

But you don't want to know all that. You just want to know how the CGI is.

And the answer is: weird. Really freakin' weird. In New York in the '80s and '90s, Cats was ubiquitous. I never saw the show as a kid — my parents refused — but now and forever, I knew what the cats looked like: hairy spandex onesies, leg warmers, intricate face makeup, black noses. Cats from Cats just seemed to be everywhere, and you got used to the peculiarity of the whole thing even without directly experiencing it.

But nothing could have prepared me for the uncanny-valley "digital fur technology" that director Hooper uses to transform the likes of Taylor Swift, James Corden, and Judi Dench into felines. It's strange, because it's actually a lot like the show (which, for the record, I eventually saw as an adult). Costumer Paco Delgado and hair and makeup designer Sharon Martin really just use John Napier's stage costumes as their starting point, and in certain lights, the cast really looks like they're wearing spandex and mohair.

The fact that the actors have human hands and feet didn't bother me either. It was the faces — specifically, the fact that the faces have not been made catlike. It's Ian McKellen's face, Jennifer Hudson's face, Idris Elba's face, with whiskers and pointy ears. It's almost as if they didn't want any of these celebrities to be completely unrecognizable to the general public. You had to be able to tell it was Rebel Wilson as Jennyanydots. Every time you think you're used to CGI, you realize you're not — and you're revolted.

Once you get past that — if you get past that — it's just Cats, and your enjoyment of the movie will mostly depend on how much you enjoy the show. If you've been a fan your whole life, you won't be disappointed. You might, dare I say, even be impressed with the way Hooper and Hall (jointly credited with a screenplay based on the Tony-winning musical, itself based on T.S. Eliot's poetry collection Old Possum's Books of Practical Cats) refocus the material.

Idris Elba as Macavity, with Francesca Heyward as Victoria.
(© Universal Pictures)

It's still an ensemble piece, but now the main character is Victoria (ballet dancer Francesca Heyward, making a sweet feature debut), a recently abandoned kitten who is invited into a tribe of cats called the Jellicles. The Jellicles are hosting their annual ball, where each will present their case in an effort to be sent to the Heaviside Layer, where they will be reborn into a new life. They give Victoria a love interest (the charming Laurie Davidson as the magical Mister Mistoffelees), and they dig deep to turn Macavity (Elba, who is genuinely frightening) into the chief antagonist for all.

Macavity is so desperate to get to that Heaviside Layer that he not only kidnaps Jellicle leader Old Deuteronomy (Dench, stately as ever), but also tries to do away with his chief competition: Wilson, who can't really sing, as Jenny; the always hilarious Corden as the Rubenesque Bustopher Jones; Steven McRae as tapping railway cat Skimbleshanks; and McKellen, a real method cat, as Gus, the elderly theater cat.

Swift is very good in a glorified cameo as Bombalurina, Macavity's partner in crime; and Hudson, as Grizabella (a character that could have used more development), rightfully sells her big number, "Memory," to the rafters of every movie theater across the world. The real standout, though, is not any of the boldfaced names but Broadway's Robert Fairchild, who oozes charisma as Munkustrap, the ostensible narrator. Your eyes immediately focus on him every time he's onscreen.

If you don't like Cats, though, this movie isn't going to change your mind. Despite eye-popping production design (Eve Stewart), frenetic cinematography (Melanie Ann Oliver) and editing (Christopher Ross), and elegant choreography (Andy Blankenbeuhler), it's a film trapped in three different time zones: the '80s (the music), the '30s (the setting), and the now (Taylor Swift in computerized cat fur). No matter how much story they try to add, it still just amounts to a shopping list of fun songs and relatively dull characters. It doesn't try to not make itself the butt of the joke.

Because in the end, it knows who its audience is and isn't. Those who love Cats will love it for the same reasons they always have, and those who hate Cats will be opting for this weekend's other major release, the new Star Wars, anyway. 'Twas ever thus. Now and forever, indeed.

Taylor Swift as Bombalurina in Cats.
(© Universal Pictures)

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