Judi Dench’s regal presence lends some gravity to the film version of “Cats.” (Universal Pictures)

Judi Dench’s regal presence lends some gravity to the film version of “Cats.” (Universal Pictures)

Frantic pace, not digital weirdness, is what dooms ‘Cats’

The people in catsuits aren’t really that creepy, but the director’s hyper style wrecks this film version of the hit play.

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical “Cats” opened in London in 1981 and on Broadway a year later. It ran forever and was seen by millions, so people have had almost 40 years to get used to the idea of actors in catsuits singing and dancing.

Why, then, did the trailer for the new film adaptation freak people out?

Maybe it’s because movies put you closer to the people-cats, which makes it harder to suspend our disbelief. Or maybe the digital tweaking — frisky ears, swishing tails — is unsettling.

I have a minority opinion: I think the cats look fine. If you can accept superheroes that fly, why is it difficult to accept people dressed like cats? Pour out some kibble and let’s watch the movie.

Having said that, boy oh boy, “Cats” is not good. But the blame goes to the clumsy style of director Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech”), not people wearing digital fur.

Webber based his songs on poems from T.S. Eliot’s “Book of Practical Cats,” a collection of whimsical feline-oriented rhymes. Other lyricists contributed other work, including the balcony-shaking show-stopper, “Memory.”

The film, like the show, is largely plotless. It observes a group of cats as they prowl around a London neighborhood at night; the songs and dances come because they’re competing in an annual cat competition.

The central role, a wide-eyed newcomer to the cat scene, is played by Francesca Hayward, a principal dancer with the Royal Ballet. She has a graceful presence, and an expressive face.

There are also name actors in the cast. Judi Dench is Old Deuteronomy, the elder who will pass judgment in the contest; Ian McKellen is Gus, a melancholy “theater cat;” and Idris Elba slinks around as Macavity, a calculating cat who wants to rig the contest in his favor.

Others get basically one number to shine, including James Corden, Rebel Wilson and Taylor Swift. Where most of the songs have a kind of Broadway loudness, Swift’s main tune, “Macavity: The Mystery Cat,” does some pleasant bumping and grinding. Swift owns it without breaking a sweat.

“Memory” is sung by a bedraggled cat, Grizabella, recalling her former glory. Jennifer Hudson handles this blockbuster tune, and while she can sing like nobody’s business, Hooper has her “acting” the song rather than singing it. When she finally does break out, you’re reminded why the tune became a three-handkerchief classic.

One reason the film is maddening rather than fun is the frantic editing style; Hooper keeps cutting every three seconds, so you can’t watch an actor build a performance. The choreography is so chopped up there’s no chance of appreciating whether anybody can actually dance.

The tone is all showbizzy and sentimental, as befits a Broadway institution. The sameness of it all wears you down after a while, although the unexpected empathy of Judi Dench’s regal presence lends a little gravity to the ending.

What works on a stage does not always work on screen, and this is probably true of “Cats.” As for the digital kitty makeup, I reacted the same way I did to the de-aging in “The Irishman”: You register its initial weirdness, then get used to it and move on to the next mob hit, or the next round of cat dancing, whichever comes first.

This article has been modified since it was first posted to correct the title of the song “Memory.”

“Cats” (2 stars)

Screen adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, with people in cat costumes singing and dancing. You get used to the digitally altered people-cats after a while, but what kills the movie is director Tom Hooper’s hyper style, which doesn’t allow the singers and dancers to build their performances. With Francesca Hayward, Judi Dench, Jennifer Hudson.

Rating: PG, for subject matter

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