Few trailers warranted such negative reactions than the Cats (2019) one. The movie is weird. Apparently, the musical is also weird…but I only have the context of this film to base my experience of the prancing felines with human hands and faces. As noted, it’s weird and mostly didn’t work for me…but there was a sequence in the middle that hit me emotionally – primarily motivated by Jennifer Hudson’s powerful vocals – that managed to win me over enough to not totally hate the overall viewing experience.
We are introduced to the world of Jellicle Cats when Victoria (Francesca Hayward) is thrown away unceremoniously in a pillowcase by the lone visible human in the film. She is surrounded by humanoid cats whose scale in the world varies greatly from scene to scene. In this opening, they are on all fours (for the most part) as the concept of cats is sang to us and her. We learn that this night is the night where Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) will choose one cat to be given a new life. The movie proceeds to introduce us to the cats who are in contention for the choice – and the villain, Macavity (Idris Elba), who aims to claim the price himself.
There is a lot to not enjoy in this film. The two biggest flaws come by the names of Rebel Wilson and James Corden. While I’ve not been a fan of Wilson in several films, there have been a few where I think she is cast correctly or used well. Unless I’m sorely misreading the rest of this film, her character seems too much like Wilson’s persona, and she is clearly given room to do her improvised comedy – which usually is not funny to me at all. It’s bad enough that her jokes don’t land for me, but part of her character’s musical number contains poorly CG’d human-faced cockroaches marching and being eaten by Wilson’s character, Jennyanydots. Her character (and the jokes) appear to be in glaring contrast to the tone of the rest of the film.
Corden’s character, Bustopher Jones, has similar problems, where at one point his weight causes him to stop a song and discuss his insecurity. Then, once they launch him to the trash can, he lands split-legged and sells the groin hit. Again, maybe some will find his sequence entertaining – but I was ready to move on. Honestly, after the opening and these two musical numbers, I considered bailing on the whole thing…yet, I stuck it out, and did find a few moments that I enjoyed.
Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson) is introduced as essentially a homeless person…but a cat. Her character definitely is the most empathetic, and is shunned by most of the other cats we’ve met so far. Victoria seems to feel drawn to her, and shows compassion. The best sequence and series of songs in the film comes with Memories – into whatever song Victoria sings – and then Ian McKellen’s Gus The Theatre Cat’s charming performance. I was actually into this series, and found myself pondering if the movie could win me over…but it didn’t. In fact, I hate the ending of the film completely. Not the plot ending – but the film’s final number just felt so tacked on, and I wanted to leave the theater already.
The visuals were baffling, and I couldn’t get over the constant change in scale of the cats to the world. Sometimes they seemed correctly proportional, and other times – like the tap-dancing number on the railroad tracks – look so off in terms of size. It’s clearly a fantasy world, but still – the inconsistencies and creepy-looking cats made for an unpleasant visual experience as well. Pair that with only liking about half the musical numbers, and I wasn’t feeling this film at all. Cats earned the Not a Total Waste of Time rating.