Cats ★★

What a disappointment! Not that I had any prior connection to the musical, but I've enjoyed an Andrew Lloyd Webber show or two, so I was looking forward to some catchy tunes delivered - per this movie's Instant Crapola reputation - in the most godawful, WTF manner possible. Had I been fortunate enough to catch Tom Hooper's roundly ridiculed effort with its pre-"improved" CGI, maybe I might have found more of that. In the version we have now, it pounces and prances on the less exciting line between embarrassing cheese and interminable trudge.

When people joke about Cats having no plot, they actually aren't joking. London has a new cat named Victoria (Francesca Hayward, in a role apparently very altered for this movie), who is introduced to various local cats, along with the idea that, at an imminent gathering, one of them will be chosen by head cat Judi Dench to fly up into the sky, like at the end of The Apple. That happens (spoiler: Victoria doesn't "win") and it ends. How is it two whole hours long? Well, there are a lot of cats for Victoria to meet, each getting their own production number that conveys a very slight variation of "I am called ______, I like to ______." None of these other cats really impact our protagonist/stand-in, she just meets them and moves on. At one point, it tricks you into thinking something will happen, since the cats all go inside a decrepit theater to have their death pageant. Then you see how much running time is left and realize it's only a new setting for more cat introductions. One is a magician!

I understand that some fans find the songs compensate for the not-quite-story, but they were overall not for me. I mean, the modern standard "Memory" is fine and Jennifer Hudson belts it out like she means it, but I found a lot of these tunes overlong, not very catchy, switching tempos awkwardly and suffering from a uniformity of subjects: cat after cat after cat after fucking cat. There's a slow n' soppy new song that ALW wrote with Taylor Swift (she shows up in kitty drag for another number), which gives Victoria something to do other than look surprised while she's being sung at. To match, the entire musical's production glows with a glossy, pitch-perfect, modern pop sheen, which might not be a turnoff for everyone, but is for me. However, I cannot complain about the expressive physical performance by ballerina Hayward, nor by the whole cast of non-famous cat dancers, who contribute Cats' only recognizably human element by maneuvering its elaborate production numbers, unafraid to make the craziest faces they can the whole time. You can picture these folks joining hands off camera, then hurling glitter confetti in the air and letting out collective whoops in honor of life and performance and THEATRE! Their sincere pizazz and energetic dancing (even when doctored) helped to keep me from checking out completely.

Then, there are the unique features that have endeared some to this version of Cats, starting with the already legendary visual effects. Acknowledging how arduous it might be to merge dozens of motion-captured actors with digital animations when each of them is simultaneously leaping and slinking around, shit just doesn't always match up, sometimes wavering several times during a shot. Even when it all syncs as intended, something always looks off, and then when you get used to it, something else looks off. Sure, that may sound like a blast, but no matter my level of inebriation, I found the adjustments wearying. The character designs evoked Dr. Moreau's darkest fantasies, while all these unsightly beings crooned all these ungainly ditties about themselves at Victoria/me like we gave two shits, the weirdness hitting its apex with the familiar celebs. Like, what were these maniacs trying to pull with poor Jennifer Hudson's head? Idris Elba manages to look cool-ish by mostly keeping things to an aloof purr, but I was kinda bummed at how many times I giggled at Dame Judi's fluffy mewling, and the less I think about Rebel Wilson and that damn singing-in-the-car guy, the better.

The highlight for me was Sir Ian McKellen, whose consistently curious choices (watch for the "meow Meow MEow MEOOOOWWWW!") made his every brief appearance fun and fascinating in a bad-good way. That's the precise element I was seeking, but only found in tiny nuggets while sifting through this litter box of an instant midnight movie. If you can find joy in Cats, be it genuine or ironic, I envy you a little while wishing you well. Cats is certainly an experience, but it's another cult I will refrain from joining.

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