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.]