Some things shouldn’t be tampered with. I enjoyed Cats onstage, where the theatrical experience worked its magic to great effect. The new film never swept me up as I hoped it might; for all its rich ingredients it felt like a soufflé that wouldn’t rise.

It isn’t for lack of effort. The cast, music and dance, production design, and elaborate visual effects are all top-shelf. But only two ingredients gave me real, deep-down pleasure: the performances of Ian McKellen as Gus the Theatre Cat and Judi Dench as Old Deuteronomy. McKellen delivers his poignant song like the stage veteran he is in real life, with a wink in the direction of Bert Lahr. There are younger, shinier performers in the ensemble but they can’t hold a candle to this knight of the realm.

As for Dame Judi, she is a marvel to behold. At age 85 she commands the screen and gives herself over to the character she is portraying: an elder who has earned the highest respect from her fellow felines. I felt the same way watching her expressive eyes and enjoying her singing voice, which theatergoers have heard before but movie audiences have been denied.

Younger audiences will naturally be drawn to such costars as Taylor Swift and screen newcomer Francesca Hayward, as well as Idris Elba, James Corden, and Jennifer Hudson, whose dramatic reading of “Memory” I found unmemorable. I am sincerely grateful that director and co-screenwriter Tom Hooper didn’t make a muddle of this play as he did with Les Miserables.

I would recommend Cats to kids and their families. It won’t warp their sensibilities (in spite of Rebel Wilson’s vulgarities) and may even trigger further interest in musicals, which every parent should encourage. And in the interest of full disclosure, my wife loved it!

[P.S. For a real treat, check out a 1995 documentary that appeared on England’s South Bank Show. It reveals how Judi Dench prepared for a stage production of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. The hour-long film begins with her first attempt to sing “Send in the Clowns” and ends with her final interpretation of the song. It’s unforgettable. You can find the entire program on YouTube.]

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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May 2024