From the moment Andrew Lloyd Webber decided to set the T.S. Eliot poetry collection Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats to music, Cats has felt like an escalating series of dares, or a Bialystock & Bloom scheme that accidentally became one of the biggest sensations in Broadway history. It did not seem likely that a plotless revue in which cats either introduce themselves or introduce other cats would ignite public interest. Or that Grizabella's ascendence to the Heaviside Layer would last longer than the acid trip that summoned it to life. Or that a single song, "Memory," would be so transcendent that it could carry a production for decades.
For nearly 40 years, however, there was widespread consensus that Cats could never be made into a movie. There's no story to be told, the action is confined to a junkyard backdrop, and the sight of performers thundering around in cat costumes and makeup is the type of conceit that's readily accepted on stage, but not as suitable to screen. And yet now, through the magic of digital technology, audiences can witness a surly, bewhiskered Ray Winstone manning a barge as Captain Growltiger or Ian McKellen saying, "Meow, meow" with the gravitas expected of a Shakespearean actor.
It's hard to know how to react to Cats, other than gape in slack-jawed amazement that the dare has continued for so long. The two trailers released in advance of the film have been a cultural phenomenon in themselves, a meme-friendly trip to the uncatty valley, but there's never any point in its 110-minute running time where it seems less strange or disconcerting. In the true Cats tradition, the idea should have been scuttled in the testing phase, when the skintight melding of faces and bodies with "digital fur technology" looked glitchy and unsettling, like one of the ghosts from a Japanese horror movie. And yet director Tom Hooper and the studio pressed on, under the not-unreasonable logic that audiences will embrace such abstractions readily, as they had on Broadway and the West End.
Hooper and his co-screenwriter, Lee Hall (Billy Elliot), have done what they can to ease the transition. There's more narrative tissue connecting one set piece to the next, and an expanded role for Victoria, a discarded kitten, to be the consistent perspective that ties the whole odyssey together. Played by the renowned ballerina Francesca Hayward, whose face reflects the right amount of wide-eyed curiosity and wonder, Victoria falls in with the Jellicle cats that haunt the streets and abandoned spaces of nocturnal London. The cats gather every year for the Jellicle Ball, and the furry matriarch Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) will make the "Jellicle Choice," in which one cat will selected for rebirth on the Heaviside Layer. (A warning: Do not making a drinking game out of the word "Jellicle.")
And with that, various cats show off their personalities, like a disturbingly itchy Rebel Wilson as Jennyanydots, a large tabby cat who leads a spirited number with kitchen mice and cockroaches, or Jason Derulo as Rum Tum Tugger, who's all about showing off his swaggering self-confidence. Lurking in the shadows is the nonsinging mischief-maker Macavity (Idris Elba), "the Napoleon of Crime," whose plan to win the Jellicle Ball involves disappearing all the other contenders and chaining them to a barge in the middle of the Thames. Meanwhile, the mangy and ostracized former glamour queen Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson) reminiscences through tears.
There's not enough story, even in this plottier version, to sustain the swings from whimsy to pathos, but it's the comedy in Cats that lands flattest, relying heavily on Wilson and James Corden, as alley cat gourmand Bustopher Jones, to pull faces and do pratfalls. The too-muchness of Hudson's rendering of "Memory" recalls the staging of "I Dreamed a Dream" in Hooper's botched Les Misérables adaptation from 2012, which he shot heavily in wide-angle close-ups. Hooper still hacks up the choreography in Cats, but he does get enough distance from McKellen's Gus the Theatre Cat to allow the actor to deliver a soulful final curtain call.
Despite such small moments of dignity and grace, the fundamental wrongness of a screen version of Cats never dissipates. Whenever it feels like Stockholm syndrome might kick in, an actor will lick his paws to groom his face or the excitable tails that extend from the cats' very human behinds will stand in semi-erotic attention. But if the show's history is any indication, a big enough swath of the population will not feel as skittish.