'Cats' Review: There Is No Good Or Bad, There Is Only 'Cats'

There is a thin line between idiocy and genius, and Cats pukes a hairball on it and rubs its ass all over it. This is a movie where a cat version of Rebel Wilson wears a halter top underneath a fur skinsuit that she takes off with a zipper, before leading an army of cockroaches in a song and dance number alongside mice with human baby faces. And yet there are flashes of gonzo brilliance throughout the Tom Hooper-directed musical — although it's unclear whether they're intentional or accidental. Because this is Hooper (the prestige director with no vision) and Cats (the musical about nothing) that we're talking about, is it possible for Cats to be anything more than a bizarre exercise in digital fur technology?

In the words of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, "Hal...this is just about cats."

Cats plays like a catnip-induced fever dream that you can't escape because the images are being poured into your eyes A Clockwork Orange-style. While at first these bursts of absurd images are so crazed that you can't help but be delighted, Cats somehow starts to drag. It's so bad, it's good — until it's not.

The story is told from the perspective of Victoria (ballerina Francesca Hayward, all wide eyes and delicate movements), a timid white kitten that was abandoned in the junkyard before being approached by the legions of Jellicle Cats, who tell her about the annual gathering to make the "Jellicle Choice," which decides which cat is worthy of being the one chosen to go to the Heaviside Layer and be reborn into a better life. What follows is a series of increasingly extravagant set pieces as the cats put on American Idol-level numbers to prove their worth to the elderly leader Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench, whose presence here is perhaps the most inexplicable).

Webber's long-running Broadway musical was famously about "nothing" — the plot consisting of cats who call themselves Jellicle Cats (Why? No one knows!) introducing themselves through song until one of them gets permission to die. Very few people could explain the decades-long appeal of Cats, even its avid fans resorting to some explanation like, "It shattered expectations for stage musicals," "It was experimental!" or "It was so horny." Well, horny Hooper's adaptation certainly is, even if it doesn't recreate the skintight Lycra costumes of the stage musical. The film has gotten a lot of flack for its pioneering use of "digital fur technology:" transforming its actors into feline look-a-likes through visual effects, complete with realistic fur and ears. And let me tell you, it deserves that flack. The uncanny valley of seeing human faces on fur-covered human bodies only grows more disturbing the more you watch it, especially when several of the Jellicle Cats wear clothing items and others are buck naked. Several of the cast members wear luxurious fur coats (raising questions of what those furs are made of — are they cannibals?) that they shed for their sexy musical numbers.

When Idris Elba's fur-covered criminal cat Macavity — the magical disappearing villain of the piece who everyone flees from in fear — sheds those furs, he looks practically naked, his regular fur too perfectly matching the actor's skin tone...making it all the more uncomfortable when he keeps thrusting his hips. Jason Derulo plays the horniest cat (with Steven McRae's fireman-stripper dressed Railway Cat being the runner-up), Rum Tum Tugger, with bombast, gyrating as he flips open his fur coat in a scene that feels absolutely obscene and yet is filmed with utter straight-faced sincerity.

That's where the Tom Hooper dichotomy of it all comes in: the director is totally sincere in his depiction of sexy cats that just want to die. Each grand statement of "We are jellicle cats," or "We are not dogs," is delivered with a teary-eyed earnest-ness — the actors emoting so hard — that you question whether Hooper has a glimmer of self-awareness in him. His original tweaks to the musical don't make it much clearer. The aforementioned Rebel Wilson musical sequence has the comedian stripping off her fur skin to reveal yet another fur skin underneath, but this time with a halter top. It's the kind of body horror that is played for laughs, but grows more discomfiting when Wilson leads an army of badly CG-animated cockroaches in a dance sequence, popping one in her mouth before she heads to her band of mice that she's trapped — the mice all played by children, for some reason. It's a totally bizarre sequence that seems like it's just playing up Wilson's comedic chops (a later sequence with James Corden does the same, but to a less extravagant degree), but perhaps peels back the disturbing layers of Hooper's mind. Is it so dumb it's brilliant? I don't know! But another new sequence with Taylor Swift's flirty Bombalurina (wearing kitten heels!) involves some catnip-induced writhing that rivals the drug-induced hysteria of Gaspar Noé's Climax. Maybe Hooper is secretly making a horror movie. There is a certain horror that comes from making Oscar-nominated legend Ian McKellen purr "Meow-meow," and lick milk from a bowl.

But I do think Hooper is completely sincere — it's clear in the gravity that Jennifer Hudson's Grizabella is awarded in the big, moving solo of the film, "Memory," in a sequence that is filmed like it was plucked right out of Hooper's last movie musical, Les Misérables. The song gets a companion piece in the original Swift and Webber-composed song "Beautiful Ghosts," which Hayward gets to deliver gracefully.

It is kind of a miracle that Cats was made into a movie at all. Its premise is ridiculous, its entire appeal based on the novelty of having a bunch of Lycra-clad strangers thrust their hips at you in the dark. Hooper creates something just as bizarre with his Cats, though not as successfully electrifying. Its flashes of brilliance feel like happy accidents and its uncanny technical choices are never overcome. And I never did find out what a Jellicle Cat was.

/Film Rating: 5 out of 10