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Cats works OK as spectacle and the star cast do their best, but the music is slight, the story drivel and the characters unrelatable.

2 out of 5 stars

Review: (rolanstein)
I attended the preview screening of Cats knowing nothing much about it. The idea of a musical about cats doesn’t appeal to me and I’ve never much rated Lloyd-Weber’s music, so I’d steered clear of the stage production. I wasn’t expecting much, but settling back with a glass of champers felt well-disposed towards life in general, and positively receptive towards whatever was to come (probably more so than those aware of the massive public backlash to the initial trailer – I’ve been out of the country and off-line for the past few weeks, and only caught up with that stuff post-screening).

That said, I couldn’t help being cynical about this incarnation of Cats. It was obviously aimed at pulling in big box office. To wit, the cast full of big names: Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Taylor Swift, Jennifer Hudson, Rebel Wilson. A hotshot director, Tom Hooper, with musical form (Les Mis). But why a filmed version of a stage musical? Apart from profiteering. I mean, what could it bring to the table that the stage production didn’t?

Well, some injudicious use of CGI, for a start. But that’s old news, even if it was new to me. Suffice to say the characters are less than endearing visually.

First impressions weren’t all bad, though. The opening is dramatic. An abandoned cat is set free from the bag in which she is imprisoned by a local feline community called the Jellicos. Weird name. Turns out it’s Jellicles. Even weirder. Too close to Testicles. Never mind.

The liberated pussy is a pretty, pale little creature. Don’t recognise the performer but she can dance. She’s constantly in the spotlight (figuratively speaking). Probably the main character, then. Good dancer (played by Francesca Hayward, a Principal of the Royal Ballet, I later discovered).

20 minutes in and I’m bored. And frustrated. See, I can’t work out what’s going on cos I can’t hear the damned lyrics of the songs (nondescript musically, BTW). There’s some spoken dialogue in between musical numbers, but that’s not much help. There’s lots of dancing and prancing, but to what avail, I’m wondering. It works as spectacle – I mean, there’s colour and choreography and the performers have the moves. But it’s empty spectacle when you can’t figure out who’s who and what’s what.

OK, enough of this faux-Gonzo reviewing. Cut to the takeaway.

Cats is a trainwreck. Why?

The narrative is so slight it’s barely there. And it doesn’t make sense. Here’s what I could make out. Every year, the Jellicles, headed by an elder, Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench), choose one of their community to be reincarnated. To effect this wondrous transformation the chosen one is sent skywards in a balloon. HUH?

Turns out that this year, Jennifer Hudson is the lucky one. I don’t remember her character name. Anyway, if anyone needs reincarnating she does. She’s a ragged-looking misery-guts with a constantly snotty nose. Even when she does the Big Number, Memories, which is the dramatic and musical climax of the show, there’s that snot glinting back at you. WTF?

As for the rest of the narrative – well, I have no idea. The pretty pale cat I assumed to be the main character sort of was, and sort of wasn’t. That is, she remained the visual focus and did a lot of classy dancing, but for no discernible reason. She’s not intrinsic to the story. Her “journey” is from abandonment to inclusion to belonging, with not much in between. More a flat line than an arc.

If the narrative stinks, the characters need to make up for it. They don’t. For a start, I didn’t relate to any of them. They each do their share of dancing and singing, but their individual personalities don’t really emerge. So, with nothing emotionally invested in either the story or characters, it’s hard to care about either. My main concern was how much longer I had to sit there bored.

One more bitch. Appearance aside, there’s nothing very cat-like about these guys. The only feline mannerism I noted was expressing affection through nuzzling heads. Otherwise, they could have been rats, or mice, or any other critter that roams the streets at night.

I dunno, maybe those who loved Cats on stage (and millions did) will also enjoy this. It probably helps to be familiar with the story and characters. But if you go in cold, as I did, forget it.

Movie Website:

Cats features: Taylor Swift, Francesca Hayward, Idris Elba, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Rebel Wilson, Jennifer Hudson
Director: Tom Hooper
Writer: T.S. Eliot (poetry collection “Old Possum’s Books of Practical Cats”), Lee Hall & Tom Hooper (screenplay), Andrew Lloyd Webber (music)
Runtime: 110 min

Australian release date: Cats opens in Perth cinemas on Thursday, 19 December.

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