The felines of “Cats” are so focused on what “Jellicles can and Jellicles do,” they never paws to wonder if Jellicles should — and apparently neither did the actors who play them.
Tom Hooper’s catatonic movie musical based on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s long-running stage production spurred quite a few questions when it clawed its way into theaters over the weekend: Why do the cats have human hands? Why do the cockroaches have human faces? Why do only some cats wear human clothes?
And perhaps the most burning question of all: Why, in Heaviside Layer’s name, did so many global superstars and Oscar-winners sign on for this epic catastrophe? Only the Jellicle moon knows, as review after cruel review rolls in, sparing no one — not even “Dreamgirls” darling Jennifer Hudson — from rampant scrutiny and snide cat puns.
Yet, despite Hooper and the visual-effects team’s best efforts, a few in the film’s star-studded litter still managed to land on their, uh, weirdly anthropomorphic feet.
From Taylor Swift and Judi Dench to Jason Derulo and Rebel Wilson, here’s a ranking of “Cats” performances, in order of least to most embarrassing.
Judi Dench and Ian McKellen
With a knighthood, a damehood, one Oscar win and nine nominations between them, Dench and McKellen arguably had the most collective dignity going into “Cats.” And they have the most coming out of it too, thanks to their subtle and nuanced turns as Old Deuteronomy and Gus the Theatre Cat, respectively.
As usual, Dench commands respect in every frame she fills as the beacon of reason in this chaotic mess of a narrative(?), allowing her feline subjects — and the audience — to depend on her for much-needed answers as the grand jury of the Jellicle Ball. Her trademark stoicism is such a welcome relief by the second half of the movie, it’s almost easy to forget the disturbing fact that she’s wearing a coat made from the same type of fur on her body (like, if a human were to wear a jacket of human skin) — almost.
Another late but appreciated appearance in the “Cats” story, McKellen’s Gus the Theatre Cat gives the film one of its most moving musical performances — not with overly dramatic pauses or weepy key changes (cough cough, Hudson), but with sheer heart. Despite meeting Gus only a handful of minutes before his Jellicle Ball debut, his capture by Idris Elba’s nefarious Macavity is the one that hits hardest.
Though it’s impossible to make heads or tails of just about anything in “Cats,” one thing is absolutely certain: Ballerina Hayward is the breakout star. Plus, her ability to capture a near-constant state of fear and confusion as new girl in town Victoria makes her easily the most relatable.
But of course, it’s Hayward’s ballet skills that really steal the show, miraculously breaking through all the digital fur technology to reveal gorgeous, purr-fect lines. A principal dancer in the Royal Ballet company, Hayward’s decades of classical training shine as she glides through the bumpy film with unmatched grace, establishing herself as a true triple threat.
Laurie Davidson and Robbie Fairchild
Two more pleasant surprises in a crowded cast of players, Davidson and Fairchild flank Hayward valiantly as Victoria’s furry friends Mr. Mistoffelees and Munkustrap, serving as guides to the strange and magical world of the Jellicles.
Strip away the ghastly digital fur and strap on some point shoes, and one could watch Fairchild and Hayward dance around each other all day. With any luck, maybe that’s what Hooper’s promised re-edit will look like.
If anyone has the ability to shake this off, it’s Swift, whose showstopping musical number as the fun and flirty Bombalurina appropriately plays much like the catwalk portion of a concert set — strutting downstage with mini-me backup dancers and engaging the audience with cringey call-outs.
Her dance moves aren’t quite as fluid as Hayward’s, but they’re certainly no more embarrassing than what we’ve seen from the “Lover” singer in music videos and at award shows. Plus, Swift gets some extra points in the dignity department for penning Victoria’s new solo, “Beautiful Ghosts,” with Webber, which — despite being shut out of the Oscars shortlist — serves as a soft and sweet counterpart to Hudson’s resounding rendition of “Memory.”
OK — hear meowt on this one. Yes, Derulo’s casting might take the cake as the randomest selection in this already extremely random ensemble, and yes, his fake cockney accent rivals Dick Van Dyke’s in painfulness.
But, really, what is “Cats” if not random and painful? Derulo’s suave turn as ladies’ cat Rum Tum Tugger doesn’t stray too far from his pop persona, wooing the females with practiced winks and smooth vocal riffs. Honestly, if he’d prefaced Rum Tum’s song with “JAsoOon DerUloOo,” it would have felt right. No net dignity loss here.
Similarly to Derulo, Corden’s entrance as the snarky yet insecure Bustopher Jones doesn’t feel too far off from his go-to persona during “Late Late Show” skits. And while there are few acts less dignified than diving headfirst into a garbage can (coincidentally, an apt metaphor for entering a “Cats” screening), it’s worth noting that the veteran TV host’s superbly delivered one-liners earned some of the only genuine laughs from the audience at the screening I attended.
Still, there’s something innately unsettling about watching a grown man-cat hiss — even if he is self-aware about it...
The digital fur technology strikes again! Like many of his costars, the secondhand embarrassment that comes with watching Elba’s sinister turn as the magical Macavity really isn’t his fault.
As usual, Elba does his best with what he’s given: another character that inexplicably wears a trench coat of what appears to be his brethren’s fur, only to take it off in the second half of the film, revealing his shimmering, naked cat body. This wouldn’t be a big deal, since half the felines in this nonsensical land are already nude to begin with.
The problem is, Macavity starts fully clothed, making his stripped-down transformation feel somehow more degrading and wrong.
While her powerful, pitch-perfect vocals cannot be denied, Hudson suffers from one fatal pitfall in her portrayal of the outcast Grizabella: a stark lack of self-awareness.
The Oscar winner simply takes herself too seriously, and the whimsical, ridiculous tone of the film never quite grounds itself enough to match her perpetually downcast gaze and overdone sobs. Even her weepy rendition of the musical’s anchor ballad comes off like a drunken karaoke performance that makes everyone in the room uncomfortable and concerned.
No matter, she’s sure to win back plenty of R-E-S-P-E-C-T when she graces screens as the legendary Aretha Franklin next year.
Poor Wilson. Of all the crazy, humiliating acts this fever dream of a project forces its felines to commit, the “Pitch Perfect” alum really gets the worst of it as the bumbling Jennyanydots.
From devouring dancing, humanoid cockroaches to spreading her furry cat legs in the air, Wilson’s endless reel of shameless gags cannot be unseen. And that phrase could realistically apply to any and every bizarre moment of this movie, so the fact that it’s being used here, and only here, is significant.
At least with Wilson’s character, that seemed to be the desired effect.