Every generation needs its baptism by fire. I refer, of course, to one’s first experience of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical “Cats,” based on T.S. Eliot’s 1939 poetry collection titled “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.” Perhaps some experienced “Cats” in the fur on Broadway, where it ran from 1982 to 2000 (plus a 2016 revival), while others were exposed to the whiskers-and-leg-warmers jamboree via VHS tape or community theater production. Nevertheless, it seems many younger millennials and Gen Z have somehow escaped the “Cats” phenomenon, which director Tom Hooper seeks to correct with his movie version of “Cats,” covered in a fine digital fur.
If you have no prior familiarity with the wordy, purring absurdism of “Cats,” it’ll just hit harder, and you’ll likely have a lot of questions. First of all, what is a Jellicle cat? No one has ever adequately explained what a Jellicle cat is, despite a whole song describing Jellicle cats. According to the lyrics, Jellicle cats are blind when they’re born, can see in the dark, can look at a king and do various other activities that pretty much any cat can do. But you’d better believe Jellicle cats both can and do, as they sing that at you almost constantly.
Other questions the film inspires: Why are some cats wearing large fur coats and some even wearing zippered fur onesies with human clothes underneath, over another digital fur covering? Also, are those dancing cockroaches with human heads? And finally: Just what is the plot of this film? The truth is, there’s very little plot, despite the heroic expositional efforts of Munkustrap (Robbie Fairchild). The gist is this: The Jellicles have a ball once a year, wherein each of the cats sing about themselves, and what their whole deal is (doing magic, being old, being sad, being sexy, being mischievous, being sexy and mischievous), and then Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) picks one to have a new life, reincarnated in a chandelier hot air balloon in the sky.
Francesca Hayward, a ballet dancer making her film debut as Victoria, the white cat brought into the Jellicle world, is sincerity and sweetness personified, whether nuzzling magical Mr. Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson) or reaching out a kind hand (yes, hand, horrifyingly) to Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson, always reliable for an emotional ballad). Rebel Wilson and James Corden tackle their roles with gusto, and Taylor Swift brings some much-needed star power to the screen. The less said about Idris Elba’s Macavity the better.