Cats

"Are we singing?" one audience member asked through the darkness as Cats—The Movie began; "I think so?!" someone else replied, and nek minnit we're clapping, waving our arms in the air, cellphones are out like lighters at a stadium and we're not strangers, we're friends, and nobody has ever, ever, ever seen a cat so clever as Magical Mister Mistoffelees.

Cats—The Musical premiered in London in 1981 and it was strangely lovable from the start; an 80s impresario, known for musicals with simplistically pleasing chord structures about Big Topics like Jesus and Argentine politics, adapts the whimsical pre-War poetry of a modernist great, who usually wrote about the human condition but also loved his dear little cats enough to potter about in feline psychology.

I believe that I starred in the very first, illegal staging of Cats in New Zealand. Our teacher, who put on most of the productions at our little Catholic primary school, was a lover-of-musicals (the best people are). Her son had been traveling overseas, saw Cats—The Musical on the West End, bought the original soundtrack on vinyl, copied it onto a C90 cassette tape and posted it back to his Mum, whereupon she brought it into class and we all became obsessed.

When our teacher suggested we put on a production of Cats, we were  110% in. Skivvies and tights became cat costumes, our mums rustled up ears and tails, our dads brought in random bits of stuff from under the house to create the great trash heap upon which we hoped to be the one cat chosen to ascend to the Heaviside Layer.

So eat kitty litter, Rebel Wilson, cos this antipodean played Jennyanydots approximately four decades before you (and I'm not even that old). Okay, so I lip-synched to a hissy C90 bootleg and Rebel actually sang, but my record stands.

Eventually, eventually, Cats—The Musical came to New Zealand and we experienced the truly odd real-life thrill of being sung at by humans in furry body-suits. I hadn't seen much live theatre at that point so a grown-ass Rum Tum Tugger leaping into my lap was a next-level interactive highlight.

Cats, then, lives in my DNA the same way as many other early, treasured cultural experiences (The Young Ones, The Monster at the End of this Book, Asterix, and so much more), and my heart will never not lift when I hear the refrain 'Up, up, up past the Russell Hotel...', no matter how cheesy it all is. But one thing I also know: I never, ever needed to see a film version.

And yet, when it was announced, I squealed? Especially with Tom Hooper holding the leash. I think I'm the only one I know who actually enjoyed Russell Crowe's sullen and rushed version of Javert's 'Stars' in Hooper's Les Misérables, delivered with all the resignation of an alpha male who knows his best friend Hugh Golden-Voiced Jackman's broken talk-singing in 'Valjean's Soliloquy' will always be a thousand times more moving and there's nothing that can be done about that...

So yes. Cats—The Movie. Maybe Tom could pull it off? As long as it's high camp. As long as the singing is top-notch. As long as they fully commit to the notion of humans in tights and fur coats and stick-on ears and painted-on noses and make it deliberately a little bit shit, you know? A bit homemade. A bit shaggy. As long as the Rum Tum Tugger is out of this world HOT. And as long as 'Magical Mister Mistoffelees' remains the utter show-stopper that it is.

Weeeeeeell... the milk-bowl is half full but the catnip bag is way too empty. There's more structure to the film than the stage show - needs must for a screen version, sure - so a new cat, Victoria (far too plain a name for a T. S. Eliot cat, however queenly), becomes our guide through this march of pussies, and that's all fine, but there are some unsatisfying casting choices that on paper probably seemed good.

The whole shebang is a strange talent quest in which Judi Dench is the judge of every cat's special skill, whether that's getting cockroaches in formation or stealing stuff or singing 'Memory' better than Elaine Paige. This works well when the very best stage and musical talent, and absolute legends with Dame and Sir in their names, and the unstoppable force that is Taylor Swift, are doing their thing. But, in short: too much Bustopher Jones, not enough Gus the Theatre Cat. Too much Jennyanydots, not enough Skimbleshanks. Definitely not enough Growltiger. And not enough trashy eighties sass all round.

I'm putting aside the CG ears because I think it's best if we all ignore the CG ears, but I have other questions. I don't understand why the mice are played by children, but the cats that are kittens are played by adults? I don't understand why you'd assemble some of the very best dancers across many disciplines (bring back tap!) and film it so that their moves never quite land? I don't get why new cat Victoria is introduced in order to be 'the audience' in the story, only to have Old Deut turn directly to camera and address us at the end? And I don't get (but really, I do) how Idris Elba managed to completely steal the HOT crown from Jason Derulo so that the new generation of Cats-fanciers will never understand when us old ladies bang on about the Rum Tum Tugger, and will instead think Macavity is the shit (which, for a feline drug-dealer, I guess he is).

But I do love the staging of the Jellicle Ball in a rundown theatre instead of a trash-heap. It feels somewhat more logical —if logic is a thing in Cats Land — to fully embrace the OTT theatrics of the whole affair. I appreciated small thespian details like Skimbleshanks polishing his tap shoes in the wings while Gus was singing his (too-shortened) tale. And I adored the care with which Mister Mistoffelees' character was developed.

If only they'd leaned fully into a wink-nudge, über-camp, humans-as-cats spectacular, instead of this half-neutered mess. But I suspect there was never a good way to successfully do Cats on film, so I'm kinda impressed that someone even tried. Plus, it's 2020 and we need more insane risk-taking if we're ever going to save humankind. If a bat-shit bonkers musical about cats with human faces can unite a cinema full of strangers in a few short hours, then maybe there is a way to beat the algorithm that divides us so acutely when it comes to collective action on real crises. Cats for President!

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