Thursday, January 2, 2020

So what's with the ridiculous critical response to CATS (which is actually quite a bit of fun)?

Come on now: Didn't you just know that most, if not all, of our critical establishment were gunning for CATS? Yes, you did -- even if you were loathe to imagine that anything like that might occur in the critical home of the brave and the land of the free. From the release of the initial trailer for this film, which had both critics and internet trolls (I don't care what you've heard: These are not the same thing), up in arms about how horribly creepy these cat-bodies-on-human-faces appeared to be, any halfway intelligent reader knew that something stupid was afoot. Turns out it was not the movie itself.

What in god's name was anyone expecting from a film based on the mega-hit musical -- in which all the actors appeared onstage in cat costumes that obscured everything but their faces? Naturally we now, via the movie, get even better-known actors with CGI-effect cat bodies grafted onto their famous faces. Those CGI effects, by the way, are pretty damn good, too.

Could one of the problems here be the film's director? Back in 2011 Tom Hooper (shown at right) -- never a critical establishment favorite -- won a Best Director Oscar for The King's Speech (which also won Best Picture). His Les Miz movie was also somewhat frowned upon by many critics. Ditto The Danish Girl. Yet as director and co-writer (with Lee Hall), Mr. Hooper has given CATS a terrific opening hook (as the sole human we view in the film, abandons a large, sealed up bag that clearly has something moving inside it), along with a much stronger storyline/plot.

That last would not be difficult, as the hit musical on which the film is based (by Andrew Lloyd Webber, based in turn on cat poetry from T.S. Eliot) had no plot whatsoever. Individual "cats" each did their signature numbers, there was a couple of fancy dance routines, and an old, grizzled kitty sang the hit song Memory and then ascended to heaven. Huh? Yup.

Hooper and Hall have gussied-up the story so that the initial abandoned kitty (played quite beautifully by the exquisite dancer Francesca Hayward, above, aloft, and below) must learn, sort of, the lay of the "jellicle" land into which she's been tossed. (Don't worry about the meaning of that word; it's mostly used for nonsense fun, so far as TrustMovies can tell.)

Now, I do not mean to imply that Hooper has given CATS some kind of Knives Out plot complexity, but he has indeed improved upon the musical theatre piece. The filmmaker further turns this low-wattage tale into a kind of Kittyland's Got Talent contest, as each star does his or her number, most of them only to be whisked away black-magically by the movie's now villain, Macavity (played with sexy, grinning menace by Idris Elba, below).

All this adds some frisson to the feline fun, and if the first few numbers may not exactly grab you as musical highlights -- neither James Corden's (staged so darkly you can barely see his face) nor Rebel Wilson's (in which she's upstaged by CGI cockroaches) works all that well -- worry not, for prior to midpoint, the movie has already offered first one spectacular set piece, followed by another better one, and then another even better. By the time the end credits roll, you may be applauding, as were many in the Delray Beach theater in which we saw the film on opening day.

A word must be said, too, about the flat-out commitment to character and speech offered up by cast members like Judi Dench (above) and Ian McKellen (below), and to song by Jennifer Hudson (two photos down, whose singing of Memories is quite wonderful).

So why these incredibly nasty reviews (which, together, makes such stunningly stupid and cliched use of words like "catastrophe," "hairball" and "litter box"? (I can only hope that John Oliver is currently preparing one of his And Now This... segments to make fun of it all.) Other than jumping on this year's Here the movie to kill! bandwagon, I can find no good reason for this excessively nasty response.

CATS may not be your cup of catnip, but it's a long, long way from terrible on any level. In fact, it is often so downright bizarre, near-crazy yet visually wonderful in its production design and imagination that it will never numb your brain, as do so many of the Star Wars franchise.

If you want to read a really delightful, funny, keenly observant review of the film -- the best I've seen anywhere so far -- check out this critique for Salon written by Mary Elizabeth Williams. It may remind you of what was sometimes said about the writing of Pauline Kael: Reading her is better than seeing the movie (not quite, in this case -- but close!).

Meanwhile, CATS is playing, for awhile longer, at least -- maybe word-of-mouth is picking up -- at a theater near you. Click here to learn where.

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