There is a long and happy cinematic tradition of great stage musicals being converted into memorable films. West Side Story, My Fair Lady, The Sound Of Music, Fiddler On The Roof… it’s an illustrious list.
And now we also have Cats, which is nothing if not memorable. Whether they are memories you want to hang on to, like Grizabella in the show, lamenting her lost glamour, is another matter.
The film is weird, rather in the way that dreams are weird. You emerge from the cinema just as you might wake up after a torrid night, piecing together bizarre images, some unsettling, some uproarious, some downright demented, that don’t seem to belong in the same story.
Taylor Swift stars as Bombalurina (above) in the musical film, for which the trailer was released in July
Rebel Wilson on her back, legs akimbo, scratching her ample belly. Judi Dench swamped by a huge fur coat and looking disconcertingly like the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard Of Oz. A green-eyed Idris Elba at the top of Nelson’s Column.
Ray Winstone doing his usual hard-man act, but in a cat costume. James Corden in a bit part. That’s just a small sample of the extraordinary images assailing your mind. People have sought psychiatric help for less. And yet somehow, it all works. I’ve had to retract my critical claws.
Those claws were out as soon as the trailer was released in July. It was our first look at how director Tom Hooper had adapted Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit musical, which was itself an interpretation of TS Eliot’s 1939 poetry collection Old Possum’s Book Of Practical Cats.
On the whole, the response was a good deal less than kind. Some folk invoked the Sonic the Hedgehog ‘disaster’ (the live-action film was postponed following outrage when the trailer came out, with people spluttering that Sonic looked all wrong).
Dame Judi Dench (above) in a huge fur coat. The actors were transformed using visual effects
I can’t have been the only person who felt that dear old Lloyd Webber, that maligned theatrical genius, deserved better than to find himself in the same sentence as a hedgehog. But nor was I the only critic preparing lots of catty metaphors. It looked then as if Cats might turn out to be a cinematic litter tray.
It’s not. I actually think that eight out of ten cinemagoers will say that they’ve enjoyed it, as long as they go along prepared for what they’re about to see, which is essentially a feline-themed ballet.
That is why the Royal Ballet star Francesca Hayward plays the lead, Victoria the White Cat, and it is a truly charming performance.
Anyone who has seen the stage musical will recognise the role has been beefed up, making her the focus of this story about a motley feline band, London’s Jellicle cats, one of whom must be chosen by the venerable Old Deuteronomy (Dench) to ascend high above the Earth and be reborn.
Gus the Theatre Cat was beautifully played by Sir Ian McKellen in a shabby dressing gown
Victoria is an outsider, beguiled by the thought of becoming a Jellicle. Gradually, her journey of discovery becomes ours. Just as she begins to see the magic in the likes of Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson), Bombalurina (Taylor Swift), Bustopher Jones (Corden), Growltiger (Winstone), Jennyanydots (Wilson), and literally in the case of the illusionist Mr Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson), so do we, if perhaps with a little more circumspection.
Undoubtedly, though, the sheer oddness of so many familiar acting titans wearing hairy onesies begins to recede. Besides, in the week of the valedictory Star Wars, it’s rather fitting to be presented with a load of star paws.
Moreover, it’s impossible not to be impressed by the Borrowers-style sets and props, and by the genuinely spectacular choreography. Hooper, whose impressive directorial credits include The King’s Speech and The Danish Girl (as well as Byker Grove and EastEnders), also has form in screen musicals – he made 2012’s Les Miserables.
Rebel Wilson wears a performance capture suit in a behind the scenes photo during filming
It shows. And it’s nice to see London celebrated too, in a kind of Monopoly board tribute, starting in Piccadilly Circus and ending in Trafalgar Square.
As for the songs, I’m sure they will please most enthusiasts.
Hudson gives her heart and soul to the much-loved (and much-loathed) Memory, while the new Beautiful Ghosts, written by nobody’s idea of a double act, Swift and Lloyd Webber, and sung very sweetly by Hayward, is a terrific addition to the score.
Not everyone will think all this is the cat’s whiskers. But if ever there was a Christmas release that will be steadfastly avoided by some and rapturously embraced by others, this is it. In other words, those who expect to love it will see it, and those who think they’ll probably detest it won’t bother to test their preconceptions.
If you belong in the former category, then you will doubtless come away from Cats with a favourite character.
Mine was Gus the Theatre Cat, beautifully played by a sad-eyed Ian McKellen in a shabby dressing gown, wistfully acknowledging that he’s ‘no longer a terror to mice or to rats’.
I’m not sure I’d entirely endorse that line from theologian Albert Schweitzer that there are only two refuges from the misery of life: Music and cats. I’m a dog man myself. But Hooper has made a surprisingly good fist of bringing it to life.
This content was originally published here.