Cats is 'a slinky and strangely sensual extravaganza' unlike any other big screen adaptation of a hit musical

Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper invites audiences to purr with delight at the Jellicle Ball in the starry musical Cats. Damon Smith does the petting...

Judi Dench as Old Deuteronomy in Cats
Damon Smith

LOOSELY based on TS Eliot’s collection of poems, the stage production of Cats with melodies courtesy of Andrew Lloyd Webber once held the honour of the longest-running musical in London’s West End and on Broadway. Part of the show’s enduring appeal was imaginative set design, which allowed feline protagonists to emerge from oversized dustbins within pawing distance of the audience.

Tom Hooper’s ambitious film version, adapted for the screen by Billy Elliot and Rocketman scribe Lee Hall, employs digital trickery to add coats of soft, wind-tousled fur to a starry human cast including Dame Judi Dench, who was supposed to originate Grizabella in 1981 until injury forced Elaine Paige to replace her. The character’s belting ballad, Memory, is the show’s stand-out number and Jennifer Hudson sinks her claws into each tremulous word on screen.

The Oscar-winning star of Dreamgirls wreaks emotional devastation with her raw rendition, tears streaming as she confides, “I remember the time I knew what happiness was,” before an inevitable key change tips her over the edge into full-blooded caterwaul of the broken-hearted.

She is truly the cat’s whiskers in a psychedelic whirl that remains faithful to the theatrical songbook with the introduction of one new lament, Beautiful Ghosts, co-written by Taylor Swift and Lloyd Webber.

A naive white cat called Victoria (Francesca Hayward) is cruelly discarded in a London alleyway as felines gather for the Jellicle Ball, where Old Deuteronomy (Dame Judi Dench) will grant a precious extra life to one member of the congregation.

Among the hopefuls are greedy Bustopher Jones (James Corden), swaggering showman Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo), palsy-afflicted Gus The Theatre Cat (Sir Ian McKellen), outcast Grizabella (Hudson) and lazy tabby Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson), whose show-stopping solo incorporates drill teams of cockroaches.

When scheming Macavity (Idris Elba) gate-crashes the ball with malevolent intent and a sprinkling of catnip courtesy of alluring Bombalurina (Taylor Swift), competitors temporarily put their differences aside to restore peace.

Cats is a slinky and strangely sensual extravaganza quite unlike any other big-screen musical. Hooper’s cameras revel in the sight of cast members rubbing themselves up against each other in purring rhapsody or arching backs to the choreography of Andy Blankenbuehler, who won a Tony Award for Hamilton.

Computer-generated tails uncoil like whips as venerable figures from stage and screen meow and greedily lap milk with flicking tongues.

Seldom has a certificate U film been full of such sensory delights.

Visual effects are initially disorienting and there are brief moments when the joins between motion-captured human performance and digitally rendered animality are visible. However, the unforgettable sight of McKellen nuzzling a theatre’s backstage column – “touch wood,” he purrs – becomes second nature by the time Corden hams it up in white spats in a comic set piece.

Weird and sporadically wonderful.

Rating 7/10

CATS (U, 110 mins) Musical/Drama/Comedy/Romance. James Corden, Dame Judi Dench, Jason Derulo, Idris Elba, Francesca Hayward, Jennifer Hudson, Sir Ian McKellen, Taylor Swift, Rebel Wilson. Director: Tom Hooper.

Released: December 20

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