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Is it possible to enjoy ‘Cats’ (the movie) if you already like ‘Cats’ (the musical)?

Francesca Hayward (left) and Robbie Fairchild, the true stars of Cats.
Francesca Hayward (left) and Robbie Fairchild, the true stars of Cats.
(Universal Pictures)

How does the film compare to the stage version?

Those of us who like Cats (the musical), we already know it’s weird.

It’s always been weird. It makes no sense whatsoever. It’s nearly three hours of Spandex-clad people singing about their oddly specific cat personalities so that they can maybe go to a cat reincarnation heaven called the Heaviside Layer.

We love it (or love to hate it) because it’s so spectacularly odd. It’s a special thing to be in a theater, strangers silently agreeing to accept and enjoy this Jellicle Cat universe.

Now that it’s a movie, though, the outside world is getting a peek into our Cats cult ... and the outside world is freaking out.

But what about you, the original and authentic Cats fan, should you see this movie? Will the cinematic changes freak you out? Here’s a breakdown of the good, the bad and perplexing things happening in Cats, the movie:

Judi Dench in the movie "Cats."
(Universal Pictures)

Good: The story
The movie actually has a narrative arc that grounds the story more than the theater version. It begins with the abandonment of Victoria the White Cat. The Jellicle Cats take her in, which gives them a chance to introduce themselves (via song) and explain what exactly the whole Heaviside Layer thing is about.

Bad: The extra story
The movie also has a very obvious antagonist: Macavity the Mystery Cat (played by Idris Elba). In the theater version, we know he’s bad, but he’s a James Dean, cool kind of bad. Movie Macavity is more desperate and cartoonish, disappearing his competition to a creepy barge so that he can be picked for the Heaviside Layer.

Bad: The CGI Fur
The computer animated fur is so unnerving and distracting, especially the tails. It’s something you never really settle into. But what’s truly bad is that the CGI makes a lot of the choreography look computer generated, even though it features some of the world’s best dancers. Really, what’s wrong with tufted Spandex?

Perplexing: Tap dancing cockroaches
Just ... why?

Good: The ballet dancers
Cats is packed with A-list stars, but it’s the professional ballet dancers who make - and save - the movie. The two “leads” are played by Francesca Hayward (Victoria) a principal dancer at The Royal Ballet and Robbie Fairchild (Munkustrap), a former New York City Ballet principal and Tony nominee. It also features Royal’s Steven McRae as tap-dancing Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat. Maybe because their jobs are to tell stories without words, they’re the ones who best capture the essence of Cats - from the movement, to the acting, and surprisingly even the vocals.

Bad: The Hollywood cast
The musical is usually performed by trained theater artists. They can reach all the notes, do all the complicated choreography and bring emotions to each song. The Hollywood people (with the exceptions of Dame Judi Dench and Jennifer Hudson) are not, as they say, triple threats. So you’re left with slapstick versions of Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson) and Bustopher Jones (James Corden). Or songs with too much pop styling (Jason Derulo, Taylor Swift).

Good: Judi Dench as Old Deuteronomy
First, I loved having a woman play this wise, patriarchal role. And because Dame Judi can do anything, and adds a level of compassion and that I never noticed in the musical.

Good: Jennifer Hudson singing “Memory”
“Memory” is pretty much the only song non-theater people know from Cats. It’s sung by the tragic, old Grizabella the Glamour Cat. Though Jennifer Hudson seems too young to be Grizabella, she pulls it off (even after the costumers covered her face with tears and running mucus). She handles the emotions and vocals of this powerful song so well that you’ll likely shed some tears, too.

Perplexing: The new song
Yes, there’s a new song. “Beautiful Ghosts” was written by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Taylor Swift. It’s fine, it’s so bland that it’s hard to muster enough emotion to love it or hate it.

Good: Cats is still Cats
So, to answer the question, yes, it’s possible to enjoy the movie if you like the musical. Because despite the flashy celebrities, the silly side plots and even the “realistic” fur suits, Cats still is and forever will be the same weird, song-filled story that makes absolutely no sense.


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