By Leah Greenblatt
December 18, 2019 at 07:00 PM EST
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What is Cats? Music, madness, a hairball in the cosmos.

Ours is not to wonder why this storyless story, this whiskered wisp of feline disco, became one of the longest-running musicals of all time, and now a movie so arbitrarily full of stars that it assembles some form of EGOT in almost every frame: Dame Judi Dench, Taylor Swift, Idris Elba, Ian McKellen, Jennifer Hudson, James Corden, Rebel Wilson, those fantastic rubberband twins who dance with Beyoncé.

The plot, essentially, could be written on a slip of blotter acid: A scampering throng of spandex-y, alley-stalking strays assemble in the late-night streets of London for a sort of tomcat talent show, deciding which among them they will ritually murder — sorry, “send to the Heaviside layer” — by dawn.

They sing(!), they teleport(?), they rub noses a lot; nobody ever seems to need a litter box. A bright-eyed little kitten named Victoria (lovely newcomer Francesca Hayward, a principal ballerina with the Royal Ballet) is the new girl on the block, alternately hazed, ignored, and welcomed by the Jellicle crew: a jolly kitchen mouser named Jennyanydots (Wilson), Jason Derulo’s serial seducer Rum Tug Tugger (are cats supposed to be that… pelvic?), rotund chicken-bone-chaser Bustopher Jones (Corden), the wand-wielding Mr. Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson), petty larcenists Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer (Danny Collins and Naoimh Morgan), and Swift’s Bombalurina, a purring burlesque queen with an approximately British accent.

Elba’s leering Macavity desperately wants the Heaviside prize, but he’s too nefarious, a classic Shaft baddie in a crumpled fedora and fleabitten coat. McKellen’s trembling, fragile Gus the Theater Cat is clearly too far across the rainbow bridge already. Could the prize go to Jennifer Hudson’s outcast Grizabella, a sad-eyed lady of mange but dignity?

She sings the hell out of the show’s centerpiece, “Memory,” no less than three times, so that’s not the worst bet. But the final decision lies with Dench’s Old Deuteronomy; she sees everything, and chooses who ascends in the Great Glittery Air Balloon to tabby heaven. (She also has maybe the finest singular moment of face acting in the whole film, right toward the end).

The aim is clearly dramatical-fanatical, allegorical, metaphorical, statistical, and mystical. But Oscar winner Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech, The Danish Girl) doesn’t so much direct the action as duly place Andrew Lloyd’s Weber musical on camera. Even after 110 tumbling, tail-swishing, deeply psychedelic minutes, it’s hard to know if you ever really knew anything — except that C is for Cats, C is for Crazy, and C is probably the grade this cinematic lunacy deserves, in the sense of making any sense at all. And yet that somewhere under the Jellicle moonlight, it is somehow, too, an A++. Grade: C+

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Cats (2019 movie)

Tom Hooper directs a star-studded adaptation of the long-running Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.
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  • Tom Hooper

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