When I saw “Cats” at a preview screening the other night, something happened toward the end that I’ve never actually experienced at a movie before. It came as the legendary British actress Judi Dench, digitally pixelated into a giant orange tabby named Old Deuteronomy, spoke-sung the lyrics of the final number, “The Ad-dressing of Cats.” As Dame Judi carefully enunciated each verse, then paused, then started a new verse, the audience began to titter. Then laugh. Then roar. Because each pause seemed to signal — at long last — the film’s end, each new verse became a fresh source of hilarity. It was that rare occurrence: a packed theater going the full “Springtime for Hitler” and giving release to blessed, hard-earned mockery.
I truly believe our divided nation can be healed and brought together as one by “Cats” — the musical, the movie, the disaster. In other news, my eyes are burning. Oh God, my eyes.
You’ve heard of the “uncanny valley” effect? The eeriness or revulsion felt when looking at a humanoid figure that’s not quite human? The digital era has given us many examples of the uncanny valley, but “Cats” is the first movie to entirely set up shop there. Based on the hardy Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, first staged in 1981 and still running somewhere on the planet, the film represents a further reworking of the original source, T.S. Eliot’s 1939 poetry collection, “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.” Instead of the stage version’s costume and make-up, however, director Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech,” “Les Miserables”) has chosen to CGI and green-screen his talented cast of dancers and stars into furry bodysuits with whiskers, cat ears, and prehensile tails.
The effect just doesn’t take. With certain players — Jennifer Hudson as Grizabella, Robbie Fairchild as Munkustrap, even Francesca Hayward of the Royal Ballet as the naïve newcomer Victoria — the faces seem to eerily float atop the faux fur, never quite jelling into one plane of vision. Some cats wear clothes, some don’t; all are, um, neutered. As Macavity the Mystery Cat, Idris Elba has been villainized with green contact lenses and a trench coat; when in one dance number he appears without the coat, it’s like suddenly seeing him naked. Except not. None of this seems conducive to the hoped-for air of whimsy and wonder.
In fact, there are moments in “Cats” I would gladly pay to unsee, including the baby mice with faces of young girls and the tiny chorus line of cockroach Rockettes — again, with human faces — that Jennyanydots gleefully swallows with a crunch. Anyone who takes small children to this movie is setting them up for winged-monkey levels of night terrors.
If you’re a die-hard fan of the musical, you may be put out by the liberties Hooper and his co-writer, Lee Hall, have taken with the show’s book. If you’ve never seen the musical, you may be wondering what the hell Jellicle Cats are, why the characters never stop singing about them, and why anyone would want to win the top prize at the Jellicle Ball, which as far as I can tell is a literal death sentence.
The cast is divided into two camps: the dancers and the featured players. The former are limber and mostly anonymous — true chorus line cats, except for Hayward, who elegantly pirouettes and pliés; the French hip-hop wonders known as Les Twins; and the Australian ballet dancer Steven McRae, who gets a pretty decent tap number as Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat. If the choreography were better, or if Hooper filmed it in a way that made any sense, the dance numbers in “Cats” might serve as the film’s highlight. But he’s of the school that believes the camera should move as much as the talent, and there’s no pattern or inner logic to the bodies flying back and forth, some via unconvincing wire-work. Also: The bit with the synchronized tails is just plain creepy.
Of the name talent, there are the singers who act (Jason Derulo as Rum Tum Tugger), the actors who sing (Hudson), and the actors who should know better. James Corden as fat cat Bustopher Jones bears a resemblance to Mike Myers’s universally reviled Cat in the Hat, which can’t be intentional, can it? (They both take hits to the crotch.) As Jennyanydots, Rebel Wilson does her look-how-gross-I-can-be routine, scratching her crotch and cracking pathetic cat-puns. Elba will not live this movie down anytime soon; Macavity keeps appearing and disappearing in nonsensical bursts of pixie dust, shouting things like “Ineffable!” every time he goes. That’s one word for it.
I’ve saved the best and worst for last. Ian McKellen is the sole performer here who finds a groove and stays with it. He’s cast as Gus the Theatre Cat — a grand old ham playing a grand old ham — and while McKellen never winks at the audience (because that would be unprofessional), he stands just far enough outside the material to enjoy its deep silliness. His scenes are the only time “Cats” becomes an actual movie.
When Taylor Swift shows up, “Cats” becomes the Taylor Swift Show. (The Swifties at my screening squealed their approval.) She sings “Macavity the Mystery Cat” as a sort of Las Vegas Cirque du Soleil number, heavy on the catnip and sex kitten vibes. Like a true diva, she arrives for this song and then leaves the building, never to be seen again. At least Hudson sticks around for the whole movie, weeping through her nose until Grizabella gets the big number, “Memory,” for which Hooper jams the camera as close as he can to the singer’s face because that’s what won Anne Hathaway an Oscar in “Les Miserables.”
That movie made a lot of money while not being especially good, and “Cats,” which is especially bad, may do the same. There are plenty of people who never make it to a Broadway show and will consider this a high-wattage touring production. Maybe some of them will even recognize the movie for the towering, triply-compounded work of kitsch it is — a triumph of vulgar, wrongheaded “showmanship.” “So first your memory I’ll jog,” says Dench’s Old Deuteronomy in that final number, “And say ‘A cat is not a dog.’” I think we’ve finally found one that is.
Directed by Tom Hooper. Written by Hooper and Lee Hall, based on the musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, based on the poems by T.S. Eliot. Starring Francesca Hayward, Judi Dench, Idris Elba, Ian McKellen, Taylor Swift, Jennifer Hudson, Rebel Wilson, James Corden. At Boston theaters, suburbs. 110 minutes. PG (peril, thematic elements, rude humor, hairballs)