Towards the end of Cats, Tom Hooper’s befuddling new musical adaptation, we are treated to the sight of Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) standing atop a Trafalgar Square lion as she delivers a stirring final address.
“You've heard of several kinds of cat/ And my opinion now is that/ You should need no interpreter to understand our character,” she declares. Alas, Dame Judi could not be further from the truth; never has the need for an interpreter been more essential than in trying to make sense of this frenzied feline farce – a truly bizarre film which manages to be at once all over the shop and yet somehow oddly beguiling.
It's a film the likes of which - for better or worse - has never been seen before, having become an immensely popular meme before even hitting the big screen, and it's unlikely that the hysterical online reaction will cease once the full film has been released in all its glory.
Such is the nightmarish and downright surreal nature of Cats, in fact, that it would be easy to forget there is some semblance of a story going on. But believe it or not there is a plot buried within the hellscape - albeit one that's almost as abjectly nonsensical as the characters’ appearances are deranged.
Francesca Hayward, making her big screen bow, plays Victoria – a minor character from the original musical who has been given an expanded role in the movie. Victoria is an abandoned kitten prowling the streets of London in search of a new home, and one night comes across the “Jellicle Tribe” who are preparing for the “Jellicle Ball” at which the “Jellicle leader” will make the “Jellicle Choice.” Quite what a jellicle is remains something of a mystery.
What follows is a bit like a cat version of The X Factor, but instead of aiming to impress Simon Cowell, the contestants are performing for Judi Dench (who appears to be dressed as a fur-coat-wearing lion) and instead of winning a recording contract they are competing for the honour of being taken away in a floating chandelier to a layer of ionised gas, such that they can end their current life and begin anew.
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All the while, they are forced to contend with Idris Elba’s malevolent Macavity, who appears in their midst every so often and for some inexplicable reason is armed with the power to make his fellow felines disappear in a puff of smoke, such that they re-emerge as prisoners on a barge manned by Ray Winstone. (Come to think of it, this is perhaps the only potential X Factor format Cowell hasn’t given a go yet.)
In giving Victoria a greater role, Hooper is essentially making her a surrogate for the audience; in the original musical, the characters regularly break the fourth wall and address the audience directly, whereas here it is Victoria who serves the function of having Jellicle culture and all its attendant mystery explained to her through a series of increasingly frantic musical numbers. As a stand-in for the viewer, though, Hayward fails - not because her performance is particularly poor, but because not once do we see her wrestle with whether bemused hysteria / wide-eyed horror is the correct response to the depravity that is unfolding in front of her.
If you’ve been taken in by the viral trailer and wish for nothing more than to bask in the nightmarish terror of digital fur technology, demented cat ballet and all the rest, then fear not – there are enough disturbing scenes here to scar you for nine lives. It’s hard to decide which aspect of the film made me most uncomfortable, but there’s certainly no shortage of contenders...
Is it the constant licking of lips? The repeated scenes of cats locking eyes as if about to kiss only for them to partake in what can only be described as affectionate nuzzling? The hideous meowing ovation that greets the end of the song performed by Ian McKellen’s Gus? James Corden’s repeated attempts to be funny? And if you thought the cats looked terrifying, just wait until you see the mice and the cockroaches…
The film is sure to make audiences laugh out loud, but it's never less amusing than when it's actually trying to be funny, with much of the comedy – provided largely by Corden’s Bustopher Jones and Rebel Wilson’s Jennyanydots – falling flat. The occasional moments of earnest sincerity, meanwhile, are impossible to take seriously amongst everything else that’s going on, and the film’s notion of scale is, at best, confused.
And yet despite all this, I would be lying if I said I didn’t find sections of Cats perversely enjoyable. When you have eventually accustomed yourself to the creepy, cat-like movement of the ensemble, some of the dance numbers are bizarrely fun to watch – Skimbleshanks, a tap-dancing number on a railway line being one such example. Meanwhile, although the quality of the acting varies wildly, one or two of the performances are admittedly rather entertaining, whether or not in an intentional manner. Scenery-chewing turns by Dench and McKellen are particular highlights, while it’s hard not to smile at Jason Derulo’s extravagant hip-shaking performance as Rum-Tum Tugger.
So, let’s just put it this way: if you’re after something that makes even a jot of sense and isn’t likely to haunt your dreams for the rest of time, then it’s probably best to give this one a miss. If, however, you are a fan of the original musical and aren’t put off by the thought of extremely flirtatious cat-human hybrids prancing about a screen for the best part of two hours, then it might just scratch a certain itch.
Cats is in UK cinemas from Friday 20th December 2019