Cats | Third Space


Like rubbing the cat the wrong direction
Thu 19 Dec 2019

2 out of 5 stars

The musical Cats made its introduction to the world in 1981 and continues to be one of the most successful musicals of all time. Based on the poetry collection of T.S. Eliot called Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats and the music of legendary composer Andrew Lloyd Webber (Phantom of the Opera). With the meandering narrative and unique style of the performers who look like the cats from the streets of London, this seemed to be a musical that would translate into cinemas. Over the three decades since its inception, it took the technology to catch up with the visionary production to make it a reality.

The story follows the lives of a band of stray cats who come together once a year to see who will be chosen to be reborn in the Heaviside Layer. The Jellicle cats use this time to musically educate the newest member to the brood of felines, Victoria (Francesca Hayward). The various cat personalities come together to prove their worthiness to Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench), the matriarchal cat who gets to choose the one who should ascend to the afterlife. Each feline vies for the attention of the older community representative from the well-fed Bustopher Jones (James Corden) to the dramatic Gus the Theatre Cat (Ian McKellen).

Macavity (Idris Alba) attempts to discourage the competition for Deuteronomy’s attention by magically catnapping each contestant, because he desires to earn the eternal prize for himself. The band of cats do all they can to thwart the efforts of the devilish feline, while hoping to gain access to the hereafter. One cat that does not even warrant anyone's attention, Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson), waits in the wings with little hope to be chosen. Throughout the songs of the saga, Victoria comes to realise who she can trust and tries to help Deuteronomy to see who needs the opportunity to start life anew.

Cats creator, Andrew Lloyd Weber, managed to tap into a fresh way of adorning his cast and the non-linear manner of T.S. Eliot’s storytelling. He used innovative styles that were embraced by an industry that looked to get a generation to back to the theatre. Over the decades, this musical still has a place in history, but does not have the same lustre that made it one of the longest-lasting productions to be seen around the world.

The music continues to stand out as compelling and to hear Memory sung by Jennifer Hudson almost makes the whole experience worth the price of admission. The difficulty is that the haphazard nature of the storytelling makes for more confusion than magic in the cinemas. Each performance can be judged on its own merit, with James Corden, Ian McKellen and Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat performances proving to be the highlights. While the inclusion of Idris Alba, Taylor Swift and Rebel Wilson had the feel of reaching for different target markets as opposed to trying to find the best talent for the specific song and character.

The problem was that the music and dance numbers were the highlights for the whole feline fantasy with the animation being an unfortunate distraction. The vitriol that the trailers experienced was addressed by the filmmakers, but these effects did not reach expectations. The intriguing nature of the make-up from the original stage productions was not matched with this CGI and proved to detract from the visual experience.

Some extreme highs and lows occur with this production, causing the whole journey to land in the middle of the road. All that being said, the film does provide a fascinating opportunity for discussion on rebirth and the afterlife.

Eliot and Lloyd Weber’s backgrounds were influenced by a Christian perspective on these subjects and it is hard to miss these elements being at the heart of this cat tale. Proving that our works do not gain anyone access to the afterlife, but who we trust in and allowing grace to give us a place in heaven.

Hard to imagine that a story involving a pack of cats could lead to discussions on heaven and hell, but it is not hard to see it within this movie. There is not a Christ figure necessarily for the felines, but what is worth considering is if acceptance is by our works or a gift offered to us.

"For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do" Ephesians 2:8-10