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Suffering Succotash

Universal Pictures

Cats (2019)

There is nothing wrong per se with musicals, but Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh have been rubbish. With that out of the way, any big-screen adaptions of their work can be afforded some leeway to be judged independently of flaws inherent in the source materials. Regardless of what one thinks of Mr. Webber’s 1981 West End production, “Cats,” Tom Hooper’s expensive version feels like belling the cat. A musical of course necessitates the suspension of disbelief, but Mr. Hooper seems never to have quite made up his mind on whether to approach the material with theatrics or realism and winds up with something the cat dragged in.

You have people obviously dressed in catsuits, yet great attention has been paid to the spasms of their either CGI or animatronic cat ears and tails. The voluminous sets are supposedly scaled to make actors cat-sized, yet the props are seldom proportional. The cat’s-cradle mise-en-scène is at times realistic and at other times stagy, while Mr. Hooper’s editorial choices are strictly music video. Even the cast members seem divided between performers with musical theater cred and celebrities without. Worst, the score faithfully renders 1980s synth instead of reflecting a different time and medium.

It’s not that one necessarily has to choose between the approaches of, say, Lars von Trier and Rob Marshall, but either of those would have been preferable to what Mr. Hopper has mustered – devoid of whimsy, magic or any sense of wonder. The camera and lighting puzzlingly become stagnant for Jennifer Hudson’s climactic rendition of “Memory.” It’s as though no one involved is really trying because no one has an affinity for what Mr. Hooper is actually going for.


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