Stop mewling! Cats is no turkey, say our dance and theatre critics

Film reviewers sank their claws into Cats, but is it really so awful? Our stage reviewers steeled themselves for the caterwauling ... but ended up quite enjoying it

It can be very pleasurable as a critic to really get your claws into something, but the landslide of snide that met the Cats movie didn’t tally with the film I saw. In fact, I was baffled by the mass freakout. Again and again, critics were confounded by the idea of humans dressed up as cats. But what were they expecting? Had anyone seen the musical?! The cats in the film look like a more sophisticated version of the stage dancers in their catsuits. Like all dancers, they have person-shaped bodies (including boobs, where appropriate) and smoothed over knobbly bits. (This obsession with them having no visible genitals – it would be a lot weirder if they did, no?) The CGI ears and tails have elicited some cattiness, but they’re twitchily intriguing rather than disturbing.

The film’s supposed “sexiness” has got reviewers in a fervour, but I think there’s some confusion. Cats are sensual beasts, they slink about and stretch luxuriously; dancers have physical freedom and self-possession. If that turns you on, well good for you, but it’s hardly X-rated.

Cats is far from a perfect film. Yes, the plot’s flimsy, it’s nowhere near as funny as it wants to be, nor as poignant – although Jennifer Hudson gets the payoff with her final chorus – but it’s a perfectly entertaining musical. Director Tom Hooper’s main mistake may have been to not completely embrace the full-on song-and-dance fest that this show is. All the best moments are those of mounting harmonies gathering steam and the few unapologetic dance numbers.

Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography has catty quirks, bits of ballet, Broadway and street dance, but it doesn’t always have space to really set out its vision. The amazing cast of world-class dancers, including Francesca Hayward, Robbie Fairchild, Les Twins and Steven McRae, are often relegated to the background and we don’t see half of what they can do – or they’re on wires, which makes their dancing look oddly unreal. Incidentally, the original choreographer signed up to the film was the much more avant-garde Wayne McGregor (he pulled out citing scheduling conflicts), which would have made it a very different film.

Perhaps Cats just didn’t click with film critics because it’s a show in love with the myths and magic of theatre: the velvet drapes and faded glamour, the names in lights, the stars and the gutter; the band of misfits united in pursuit of the perfect number; the spotlight as saviour. And then there’s the most essential theatrical element of all: suspension of disbelief. Lyndsey Winship

A zero-star review initially scared me off Cats; then came reports of CGI (non) genitals. It sounded like a disaster on a scale as epic as Performance and maybe as obscene. Having grown up reading TS Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, and considering Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage show to be musical-theatre perfection, I thought I’d be delivering a similarly damning verdict when I finally saw it.

But I was bemused by all the critical mewling. One tweet claimed Cats was so bad it must have been made by the dog lobby. As a lifelong cat lover, I don’t regard this film as an insult to cats. Yes, the production is over-CGI’d, but there is Rebel Wilson’s earthiness and James Corden’s comedy; both succeed in playing it for laughs. Ian McKellen performs Gus the Theatre Cat with great heart and his reminiscing about his bygone glory days on the boards is a highlight, with the added poignancy brought by McKellen’s announcement last year that he is to perform his final Shakespearean part. Then there is Jennifer Hudson as the outcast cat, Grizabella, who sings Memory. For some audiences, this is still Elaine Paige’s song, but Hudson steals it in her final rousing rendition.

Poignant … Ian McKellen as Gus the Theatre Cat.
Poignant … Ian McKellen as Gus the Theatre Cat. Photograph: Universal Pictures/Allstar/Working Title Films/Amblin Entertainment

There is also the campness of it all, particularly in the ballet scenes when actors are at their most poised and po-faced. The straight-up song and dance set pieces undercut this accidental camp, and the film encapsulates a genuine sense of theatre.

In fact, Cats feels like a production for the stage rather than the screen and may appeal most to those who love live performance. There are big, eye-catching ballet, tap, cabaret, acrobatic and street-dance numbers. In the end, the film gets carried away by song and dance over story. Trevor Nunn, directing Lloyd Webber’s musical, knew Eliot’s series of cat stories needed a narrative through line. This production doesn’t have a strong enough one and ends up feeling overlong, though no longer than many musicals.

Is Eliot turning in his grave right now? Probably, given the Emily Hale controversy, but he may also be thanking Tom Hooper for creating a welcome distraction from that posthumous firestorm.

Children – for whom the original book was intended – are likely to delight in the film’s oddness. They will love the costumes and tensile tails that rise up in perky moments (which some adults have been quick to describe as obscene).

Films that bomb as spectacularly as this one always have the prospect of a cult revival, critical rehabilitation, and second life. For a cat movie, with its potential for nine, that would be the perfect ending. Arifa Akbar


Arifa Akbar and Lyndsey Winship

The GuardianTramp

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