The long-anticipated and star-studded film of the hit stage musical is finally here, but will it be a disaster or a success? Nicholas Barber gives his verdict.

The first thing to say about Cats is that the cats themselves look fine. When the trailer for Tom Hooper’s film was released in July, online commenters caterwauled about how creepy the actors appeared, with their ill-fitting coats of computer-generated fur. But the effects team have clearly been working flat out ever since, and now the digital pelts are bright, sleek and seamless. Ears twitch and tails flick, whiskers catch the light, and hair quivers softly in the night breeze. Come to think of it, the CGI fur might be the best thing about the whole project.

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The worst thing about it? That would be the story. Based on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s international smash-hit musical, which was adapted in turn from TS Eliot’s poetry collection, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, the film begins one night when a kitten named Victoria (Francesca Hayward, a ballerina with a dazzling smile and a trilling voice) is dumped in an alleyway in 1930s London. She is adopted by a tribe of strays called the Jellicles – a word you hear so often that it becomes a kind of sonic torture. Her new furry friends show her around the cobbled backstreets, then they gather in a derelict theatre to meet Old Deuteronomy (Dame Judi Dench), their respected and dignified matriarch (so... Judi Dench, basically). Tonight, at the Jellicle Ball, she will decide which of them gets to float up to the Heaviside Layer and be born again – assuming, that is, that her deliberations aren’t spoilt by Macavity (Idris Elba), a villain with teleportation powers, like Nightcrawler from the X-Men.

There is something daring about a musical that purports to be family-friendly festive entertainment, but which counts as an avant-garde experiment

Unless you’re on strong mind-altering substances while you’re watching the film, you will either be baffled or bored by this pseudo-religious nonsense, which was cobbled together by Trevor Nunn for the original stage production in 1981, and which has nothing whatsoever to do with the behaviour of real cats. Personally, I can’t help respecting how defiantly illogical it all is. There is something daring about a musical that purports to be family-friendly festive entertainment, but which is actually so alienating and out-there that it counts as an avant-garde experiment. And I’m not just talking about Ray Winstone’s truly terrifying attempt to sing a melody.

But while Cats is admirable on some level, that’s not the same as being enjoyable – and there is little in it to make you laugh or cry, let alone to purr with pleasure. The screenplay is written by Hooper (director of The King’s Speech and Les Misérables) and Lee Hall (Billy Elliot, Rocketman), but there is no characterisation and no emotional journey, and they can’t have laboured for very long over such zingers as “Look what the cat dragged in,” and “Cat got your tongue?”. The film is essentially a lightweight but largely joyless cabaret in which the acts take turns in the spotlight to croon their signature songs. 

Cats needed more narrative, more comedy, more show-stopping tunes, and more choreography that hadn’t been chopped to ribbons by the editors

Rebel Wilson sticks to her customary dazed, deadpan persona as Jennyanydots, a pampered housecat who trains the resident mice and cockroaches. Naoimh Morgan and Danny Collins get the liveliest production number as a pair of gleeful burglars, Rumpleteazer and Mungojerrie. James Corden has some jaunty fun as Bustopher Jones, the aristo-cat who raids the bins of the West End’s most exclusive clubs. Taylor Swift has a seductive cameo as the breathy Bombalurina, and she also co-writes the film’s sole new track (which didn’t make the shortlist for the best original song Oscar). And Jennifer Hudson as the outcast Grizabella blasts out a gale-force Memory, as if to reprise the tear-stained power-ballad routine that Anne Hathaway pioneered in Hooper’s Les Misérables.

If they and the rest of the cast were in front of you, live on stage, there would probably be enough energy in the room for it to qualify as a great night at the theatre. But cinema is a different medium. To qualify as a great film musical, Cats would have needed more narrative, more comedy, more show-stopping tunes, and more choreography that hadn’t been chopped to ribbons by the editors. If the film had made the slightest bit of sense, too, that would have been a bonus. Cats isn’t the cat-astrophe that everyone either feared or hoped for back in July, but it isn’t a triumphant vindication of Hooper’s vision, either. After all that fuss, it scrapes by – but only by a whisker.

★★☆☆☆

Cats

Director: Tom Hooper

Cast: Taylor Swift, Dame Judi Dench, Sir Ian McKellen, Idris Elba, Francesca Hayward, Rebel Wilson, James Corden, Ray Winstone, Jennifer Hudson, Jason Derulo

Run-time: 110 min

Release date: 20 December in the US, Canada, the UK and Ireland

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