There is a strange scene — OK, there are many strange scenes — near the end of “Cats,” the flailing feline phantasmagoria coming soon to a movie theater and/or shroom party near you. A bright new morning has dawned in London, and Old Deuteronomy, the wisest of the city’s scruffy tribe of jellicle cats, leans back to consider the surreal activities of the night before. Played by Judi Dench under what looks like a computer-animated shout-out to Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion mane, she sings a few lines of T.S. Eliot to the audience: “You’ve heard of several kinds of cat / And my opinion now is that / You should need no interpreter / to understand our character / You’ve learned enough to take the view / that cats are very much like you.”
It’s heartening to think that someone, somewhere, might learn something from “Cats.” The Oscar-winning English director Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech,” “Les Misérables”) and his cast and crew probably will emerge with the most valuable lessons of all, though I doubt many will be inclined to share them publicly. Still, if you see this movie — and I offer that up as a hypothetical, not a recommendation — and arrive at the theater not excessively inebriated, you will indeed learn about several different kinds of cat, with stripe and spot formations as impressively varied as their personality types and domestication levels.
There is a lazy, bumbling “gumbie cat” named Jennyanydots, who here takes the form of an orange-coated Rebel Wilson. A “bravo cat,” Growltiger, lives on a barge on the Thames and is played by that sexy beast Ray Winstone. There’s a top-hatted magician cat named Mr. Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson) and a nefarious “mystery cat” named Macavity (Idris Elba). In the opening scene, a shy, graceful white kitten named Victoria (Francesca Hayward) is rudely deposited in the London junkyard where all these jellicle cats prance and prowl. She plays the standard outsider role in this decidedly non-standard movie, serving as our cat eyes and ears on a wild night of singing, dancing, preening, licking, kidnapping, punning and other hallucinatory Razzie-courting mayhem.
If you are among the millions who have seen Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical adaptation of Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” — an improbable smash hit that ushered in the era of the Broadway blockbuster and remains one of the longest-running shows in history — then you are probably familiar with these characters already. If not, you will emerge from the theater fully in the know, with songs like “The Rum Tum Tugger” (that’s Jason Derulo) and “Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer” (Danny Collins and Naoimh Morgan, respectively) skittering around in your head like tiny human-faced cockroaches, to borrow one of this movie’s more disquieting visuals.
The plot is basically “Les Meowsérables.” While some jellicle cats enjoy the comforts of domesticity, as we see in a few scenes of cake-munching, pillow-shredding decadence, most of them are alley dwellers, forced to raid the garbage for scraps or break into the local milk bar at night. As in the stage show, most of the cats introduce themselves with a sung monologue that doubles as an audition, offered up in hopes that Old Deuteronomy will make them “the jellicle choice” — the cat destined to ascend to the Heaviside Layer and receive the gift of a new life.
And there is, to be sure, some representational value to be gleaned from these cats and their singing suicidal Olympics. Given how often the movies tend to stereotype felines as smug, pampered homebodies, there are certainly worse characters one could spend time with, though I am hard-pressed at the moment to think of many worse movies. I say this with zero hyperbole and the smallest kernel of admiration. For the most part, “Cats” is both a horror and an endurance test, a dispatch from some neon-drenched netherworld where the ghastly is inextricable from the tedious. Every so often it does paws — ahem, pause — to rise to the level of a self-aware hoot.
You may have seen the best of it already. The movie has been the long-tailed butt of online jokes for months, following the July release of a trailer whose deeply discomfiting imagery — showcasing bold new advances in what is being called “digital fur technology” — seemed to unite the internet in a collective outpouring of derision and delight. There was reason to suspect, if not hope, that the mockery might have been overblown, that the movie itself would not achieve or sustain the same degree of awfulness. Surely the human eye would gradually adjust over two hours (good God, two hours) to what it could scarcely process in two minutes.
Not quite, as it turns out. To return to Old Deuteronomy’s words: Are these cats really very much like us? “Cats” insists that they are, and therein lies its problem — well, one of them. These felines are disturbingly humanoid creations, their celebrity faces adorned with cat ears and grafted onto matted, long-tailed bodies. They sing, dance, walk upright and sometimes wear jewelry and coats made of fur that is probably not their own. Curiously enough, for all this talk of digital fur technology, there appears to be no fur on the cats’ actual digits, their unnervingly human fingers and toes. And just to round out this nightmarish anatomy lesson, Hooper often directs his actors to splay their legs and bare their flat, undifferentiated crotches for the camera, none more frequently than Dench’s Old Neuteronomy herself.
But surely this is all (more or less) true to Lloyd Webber’s theatrical conception, you may wonder, perhaps recalling your own memories of stage performers in elaborate furry unitards, punctuating their songs and dances with purrs, hisses and other semaphoric feline gestures. But that was the right aesthetic for that live performance medium; it was an example of how inventive stylization and stagecraft could bring a fantasy world to vivid life.
“Cats” the movie is predicated on no such rationale. As a filmmaker, Hooper has a tendency to pick one grandiose formal conceit and stick to it, with a bludgeoning lack of imagination or modulation. His insistence on live on-camera singing and in-your-face closeups turned “Les Misérables” into one of the more vocally and visually monotonous movie musicals of the past decade. With its grotesque design choices and busy, metronomic editing, “Cats” is as uneasy on the eyes as a Hollywood spectacle can be, tumbling into an uncanny valley between mangy realism and dystopian artifice.
But then again, maybe this look was the appropriate choice for a movie in which making sense was the very last priority. At some point during “Cats” — I think I was trying to distract myself from the richly metaphorical image of James Corden sifting through garbage — it occurred to me that only one letter separates its title from Pixar’s “Cars,” to name another hermetically sealed, digitally polished, heavily anthropomorphized family-friendly entertainment set in a world from which actual human beings are creepily, apocalyptically absent. The burden of emoting, of bringing warmth and life to this CG-deadened nightscape, falls to the actors, some of whom perform and wear their feline physiognomies more gracefully than others.
Faring well enough is Ian McKellen’s Gus the Theater Cat, whose song about his glory days on the stage hits genuinely lovely notes of regret. Robbie Fairchild gives one of the movie’s more intuitive performances as Munkustrap, a jellicle guide who helps welcome Victoria onto the scene. For sheer musical proficiency, Taylor Swift is unsurprisingly best in show as Macavity’s henchwoman Bombalurina; she and Lloyd Webber also wrote an original song for the movie, “Beautiful Ghosts,” which the engaging Hayward shapes into an affecting rejoinder to the show’s signature tune, “Memory.” That song, sung by an aging jellicle outcast named Grizabella, falls regrettably flat here; that it’s being sung by an artist as talented as Jennifer Hudson makes it all the more bewildering, though her performance is admittedly of a bombastic piece with the movie she’s in.
“I remember / the time I knew what happiness was,” Grizabella sings. You will remember it, too, and you will know it again once you have ascended to your own Heaviside Layer, located just beyond the light of the exit sign.
Running time: 2 hours
Playing: Opens Dec. 20 in general release