Will Gompertz reviews Cats starring Taylor Swift and Jennifer Hudson ★★☆☆☆

Cats

First things first, I want you to know this is a safe space, free from feline puns. There'll be no talk of fur-from-purrfect performances that don't scratch the character's surface or give you paws for thought. That's not happening, not in this review - not a cat-in-hell's chance.

Onward!

We all know about the social media hoo-ha the trailer caused when it was released in the summer. "Urgh!" was the general reaction. "Cats with furry breasts, that's gross! And the scaling, that's rubbish."

Well, those issues remain in the finished, full-length feature, although the director - Tom Hooper (The King's Speech, Les Misérables) - has spoken about throwing a large chunk of cash at fixing the more glaring problems made evident to him by the Twitterstorm.

Money has been spent. You can see that.

Cats the movie is a slick, computer-enhanced celeb-fest with meticulously choreographed set-pieces taking place in a version of London that sits somewhere between Dickensian squalor and Soho glamour. It is a shiny, colourful, sung-through piece with luxury hotel production values.

That the cats are still gendered and sexualised is not such a big deal. The geriatric bodies of the de-aged stars in Scorsese's film The Irishman are far more disconcerting and off-putting. Anyway, the figure-hugging outfits allow Francesca Hayward - a Principal Ballerina at the Royal Ballet - to treat us to her best moves playing Victoria, the white cat.

Image copyright Universal Pictures
Image caption Francesca Hayward plays Victoria (centre), the white cat

She is not exactly verbose, but her eyes talk plenty, wearing a nonplussed expression throughout as she tries to figure out what in the name of Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats is going on.

Not much, is the answer.

This is a thin tale (see, I can resist) about a gang of feral cats called the Jellicles, who gather once a year to see which of their number will be given the opportunity to ascend to the Heaviside layer.

Dame Judi Dench, who plays wise Old Deuteronomy, has the task of making the Jellicle choice under heavy lobbying from pantomime baddie cat Macavity (Idris Elba).

That's it, basically.

A simple story based on the poems of T.S. Eliot, which Andrew Lloyd Webber illustrated with some very catchy numbers in his hit 1981 musical Cats. I saw that original production as a Clash-mad teenager and surprised my grumpy self by loving every single second. I really do have the T-shirt. Brian Blessed was wonderful as Old Deuteronomy.

More recently, I saw Nicole Scherzinger as Grizabella knock it out of the park in a 2014 revival, where she left absolutely everything in the auditorium with an unforgettable rendition of Memory.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Nicole Scherzinger as Grizabella (front left) starred in a West End production of Cats in 2014
Image copyright Universal Pictures
Image caption Jennifer Hudson gives a strong performance as Grizabella in the film

That job falls to Jennifer Hudson in the film, who is convincing as the ostracised Grizabella, and - more importantly - nails the famous song with aplomb, as you would expect from such a talented individual.

It is a reflection of the singing throughout, which rarely dips below excellent, although both Dame Judi and Elba are clearly primarily actors not singers. That's fine, they know how to sell a song. As does Taylor Swift, who has a welcome cameo playing the mischievous Bombalurina.

Sir Ian McKellen rocks up for a turn as Gus the Theatre Cat, while Rebel Wilson and James Corden pitch in to bring a little light-hearted comedy to proceedings. Oh, and Ray Winstone makes an appearance too, just like he does in those betting ads.

Image copyright Universal Pictures
Image caption Singer Taylor Swift plays the mischievous Bombalurina
Image copyright Universal Pictures
Image caption Dame Judi Dench as Old Deuteronomy

It is a roll-call of stars that's a testament to Hooper's well-deserved standing as a top-notch, Oscar-winning director.

But you can't always hit the bullseye, and the helmsman has missed the spot with Cats.

The sum is a great deal less than the parts, however famous and gifted the people playing them happen to be. The story takes forever to get going, and when it does - eventually - it lacks any real conviction or emotion.

The harsh truth is the film feels plastic, it has no heart or soul. That might well be a problem with the source material and its suitability for a transfer from stage to screen. Notwithstanding notable successes, the fact is not everything that is a hit in one medium works in another.

It's not terrible, it's certainly got more going for it than the trailer, but it is some way short of Lord Lloyd-Webber's original.

Recent reviews by Will Gompertz

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