When I was little and my parents couldn’t pick me up from school because they were working, I used to go to my Gran and Grandad’s round the corner and sit in the spare room watching movies till they could come get me. I had three VHS tapes to choose from, The Nutty Professor starring Eddie Murphy, Singin’ in the Rain, and the recorded stage production of Cats from 1998. One can only imagine where my love for musicals came from.
When I grew old enough to walk home alone without my parents, my Gran let me take the VHS of Cats with me as I’d grown to completely adore it. I attended a weekend stage school from the ages of 3 to 9, then various other stage schools until I was around 16. I dreamt of being on Broadway, to play Eponine or Grizabella for 8 shows a week. I even wanted to one day be a good enough dancer to grace the scenery of the Jellicle Ball. I took a slight U turn in career aspirations a few years ago, but I will always love the stage (can you tell by how dramatic I’m being?). Naturally, I couldn’t wait to see this ambitious film adaptation of one of the strangest musicals there ever was.
Ask me on any day and I will always passionately defend Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables. It was the first film I ever witnessed in IMAX and I was dazzled by the intimate closeups and Hugh Jackman’s career-making performance. And so I trusted Hooper with musicals, and I retained an open mind throughout the (exceptionally written and often hilarious) reviews of Cats until the moment I sat down in the cinema. Now, just an hour since the credits rolled, I’m still entranced.
Cats is a strange beast. Many will argue there is no real plot, and the original stage production was panned by critics upon its opening, but it has always found somewhat of a dedicated cult-following. Musical theatre kids with an affinity for dance would always be drawn to its spellbinding ballet-heavy choreography, and the desperate leads would belt ‘Memory’ from the top of their lungs (anyone reminded of Miranda Cosgrove in School of Rock?). I, for one, love Cats for its sheer imagination. I watched, entranced, as humans transformed before my very eyes and told stories of legacy, community and redemption.
Tom Hooper’s Cats delegates protagonist duties to Victoria the White Cat (played by film newcomer and professional ballerina Francesca Hayward). Recently abandoned, Victoria is taken in by the Jellicle cats stalking the streets; they tell her of the yearly ball which is to take place that night, and she follows as they begin their preparations. From the first note of the memorable score by stage royalty Andrew Lloyd Webber I was enchanted, wrapped up in the warm colours of London’s streets at night.
Munkustrap (Robbie Fairchild) was always my favourite. The storyteller cat, he is the wise authority figure we look to to learn the histories of the Jellicles. He is played to perfection here by Fairchild, who has both the paternal guiding energy and the fantastic dance ability. He introduces us to each of the hopefuls yearning for a new life. A new life which will be offered to the chosen one during the Jellicle Ball. The cat in charge of this huge decision is Old Deuteronomy (a traditionally male role played here by Judi Dench), a very very old cat looked up much like Catholics look up to the Pope. Dench is deeply moving in the role, looking upon Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson) as she sings the haunting ballad ‘Memory’ with complete wonder and sympathy – I was almost moved to tears.
The main complaint surrounding Cats appears to be how unsettling the curious hybrids look. With Hooper’s new ‘digital fur technology’ many were concerned that the effect would border on obscene (and many have claimed it does), however, I must disagree. While the appearance is jarring, it is exciting and new. What are art forms if not for experimentation, exploration and risks taken with new technologies? After about 10 minutes I forgot they were human, and the performances had such warmth and conviction I felt transported back to the theatre the first time I saw the show in person.
Cats is not perfect. Some of the songs fall flat and some of the jokes don’t land. But once Rebel Wilson and James Corden’s bits are out of the way it’s easy to settle in and enjoy the beautiful music and choreography. It doesn’t quite live up to that VHS on my shelf but I loved every minute; my only complaint is that it wasn’t longer.
Cats is in cinemas now
by Millicent Thomas
Millicent Thomas is a proud Mancunian studying Film & Publishing in Bath. She has written freelance for Little White Lies, Much Ado About Cinema, Reel Honey, and more. Her favourite films include Logan, Columbus, and Spy-Kids. Follow her on Instagram, Twitter and Letterboxd at @millicentonfilm