A little history, kittens: Andrew Lloyd Webber’s megamusical was always vaguely creepy, even to the eyes of fans (including this boy in 1982). It was either sublime or ridiculous or sublimely ridiculous. ‘Cats’, the movie, meanwhile, was long thought an impossible thing and – whaddaya know? – here it is, very much an impossible thing. Tom Hooper’s big-screen version embraces the weirdness. It cherishes the kink with every erect tail twitch and slinky rub-up. The film is too literal for its own good, yet it’s nowhere near the uncanny disaster of the recent hyperrealistic remake of ‘The Lion King’, a nature documentary that burst into song. If you’re able to roll with Robert De Niro’s computerised facelift in ‘The Irishman’, a bewhiskered Judi Dench isn’t going to throw you.
Still, did those ‘Cats’ trailers make you bristle? Maybe you’re a dog person. Or not a theatre person. Despite being the target audience, the latter group will have serious problems with this adaptation, which murders some of the songs (‘Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer’ is criminally reduced to a monotone) and comes close to snapping the already slender throughline, which rests on the naiveté of Victoria (graceful English ballerina Francesca Hayward). She’s a babe in the woods who only wants to learn the intricacies of the Jellicle Ball, a metaphysical contest that will not be explained here. Plot isn’t going to help you. These cats sing and dance – that’s all you need to know. Sometimes the shtick of a performer gets in the way, as when Rebel Wilson rolls around awkwardly or gobbles up digitally generated cockroaches. There’s no forgetting such indignities, and that goes for Idris Elba’s menacing little ear wiggles, too.
But occasionally you’ll get a full blast of Lloyd Webber’s proggy, synthy score and the whole silly enterprise clicks into place, if only for a stretch. Much of the dancing here – especially Steven McRae’s tap solo as Skimbleshanks the railway cat – is inspired: not always elegantly captured by Christopher Ross’s functional camerawork but sharply restaged by ‘Hamilton’ choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler. ‘Cats’ is never believable (realism isn’t the goal) but it does have pink and purple lights and smoky sets, resulting in a bizarre feline version of ‘Blade Runner’. Taylor Swift can’t dance; even her fans know that. Regardless, she’s got sufficient moxie to command the screen as sultry Bombalurina. Swift also makes a contribution to the score, the too-modern-sounding new number ‘Beautiful Ghosts’, which gets overplayed.
Forget these reservations. There is one moment in ‘Cats’ that works beautifully, always has, and that’s ‘Memory’, still an elemental piece of theatre. Jennifer Hudson, a classy presence in the context of this ensemble, sings it on the verge of tears, infusing the midsection with a scary sense of rage and wasted years. Hooper comes in tight and a spell is cast; even haters will be transported. Suddenly, you’re not thinking about ‘digital fur technology’ or TS Eliot’s dopey lyrics, or cats at all. There’s just an outpouring of need, supported by a massive orchestra. That has to count for something. Cats may flop but it will be found by a like-minded audience, maybe the same one that rescued ‘The Greatest Showman’. Don’t be the sourpuss to tell these people they’re wrong.