A Spoiler-Ridden Film Review of Cats


Matthew Murphy

A photo of the North American Tour Company of Cats.

Sheridan Rowell




“The past experience revived in the meaning is not the experience of one life only, but of many generations not forgetting something that is probably quite ineffable.”


If you know who I am, you should know that I am invested in musical theatre. I have done community theatre in Texas as well as Brewton, Alabama, and high school theatre here at Flomaton HS. Now, if you are very close to me, you will already know that I have a special connection to the musical Cats. While it is not my favorite musical, it was the very first musical I ever watched/listened to.


Cats is a musical inspired by Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot. While it might not seem like it has a plot, I promise it does. The plot is simple: on the night of the Jellicle Ball, the leader of the Jellicle Tribe, Old Deuteronomy, comes to choose the cat who deserves to be reborn into another life. That’s it. There are also snippets of subplots that are not fully explained, but the pieces can be put together if you care enough to put some thought into it, such as the reason why the villain Macavity keeps wreaking havoc on the tribe or why Grizabella the Glamour Cat is shunned by the rest of the cats. Most of the musical is simply left up to interpretation, which is part of the appeal, but a lot of people just don’t want to sit down and put the puzzle together.


Now, I could go on and on about the ins and outs of this musical for days on end, but I am here to discuss the live-action film released on December 20, 2019. If you keep up with social media, you might already know that the movie didn’t do too well with ratings. A lot of that is simply from people misunderstanding what the musical is about, but there were some actual problems with the film. Here are some of the grievances from a Cats superfan (me):


  1. The animation. We all know the CGI is terrible. I don’t really need to go in depth about this one. We all would’ve been better off with actual animation or with putting the actors in makeup like in the stage version. Realistically, Cats is made for the stage and it doesn’t translate well to film. Even the proshot of the musical released in 1998 doesn’t do the stage version justice. It is much more enjoyable when there are actors crawling out of every nook and cranny in the theatre and passing right by you in the audience. It is also much more enjoyable on stage because of all of the technical elements, such as how they make humans look like cats with just costumes, how actors appear in one place and then in another five seconds later, etc. To tack onto this, the actual cats weren’t even the most terrifying things in this film. During a dance number, there is supposed to be a sequence with sewing mice and tap-dancing cockroaches. The mice and the cockroaches were animated horribly. Imagine how the cats were animated, but with mice and cockroaches. It was rough. Again, this is an example of the musical not translating well from stage to screen. On stage, the other cats simply put on thrown-together costumes for the mice and cockroaches, as the song, like many others, is simply supposed to be a cat telling her story and the others playing along.
  2. Interpretation. One thing that they do in the film that I mentioned above is that they hand over pieces of the plot to the audience. They explain why Grizabella is shunned by the group and they also explain why Macavity terrorizes them. These things are meant to be left up to interpretation and handing out the information takes away from the experience. In the film, they state that Grizabella left to work for Macavity and they state that Macavity wants to be reborn and that is why he terrorizes the other cats. However, these things are mostly left out in the stage version. It is never explained why they shun Grizabella. They only state that she used to be a “glamour cat,” inferring that she used to be beautiful and glamorous, and Grizabella herself states that she wants to go back to a time when she was young, beautiful, and happy. I will discuss Macavity’s story in depth further on, but just know that they give you the pieces of his story and you have to string them together.
  3. The characters. This is really a nitpicky thing, so I’ll try to keep it as short as possible. There aren’t enough cats in the film shown at all times to accurately represent the story. Taylor Swift was a terrible choice for the character Bombalurina, but I’ll discuss that along with Macavity’s story. Jason Derulo as The Rum Tum Tugger was better than expected, but still not great. Casting Rebel Wilson and James Corden as Jennyanydots and Bustopher Jones respectively was not a good choice, because the characters are supposed to be taken seriously and those two are comedians at heart. A big issue with the film is that they made most of the characters sing their own songs, which takes away the emotion and importance of the characters and their relationships. For example, The Rum Tum Tugger sings his own song in the stage version, but he also sings Mr. Mistoffelees’ song to show that Tugger isn’t entirely selfish and cares about people (or, well, cats) other than himself, to show that the two of them are good friends, and to show that Mr. Mistoffelees is somewhat unsure of his magical abilities. (Oh, yeah. He’s a magician.) Another issue concerns a quick change with the character Jennyanydots. She wears a large coat and strips it to reveal a 1920s era dress for her dance number. Again, the stage doesn’t translate well to screen, because she literally unzips her skin to unveil her dress in the film.
  4. Macavity. This is my biggest issue with the film and it is one that digs in deep. Like I said before, Macavity’s story is given to you in pieces in the stage version. There is a song entitled “Macavity the Mystery Cat” which is sung by characters Demeter and Bombalurina. To get these pieces of Macavity’s story, you must watch those two characters and how they act. Demeter is shown moving her hands along her body like a lover would, but she almost immediately flinches away from herself as if it physically pains her. Bombalurina is shown doing the same as Demeter, but she follows through with her caresses. Up until this point, Demeter is also seen on the sidelines staring off into space most of the time. If a loud crash is heard, she immediately yells out Macavity’s name and hides. Then, during the battle after his song, Macavity tries to kidnap Demeter, but is stopped by the other cats. In some productions, he is known to say that he will be back for her later. If you piece all of this together, it can be inferred that Demeter was once involved with Macavity, but he was abusive toward her and she left him, causing him to come back for her. Here’s where the issue comes in: they took her out of the song entirely in the film. In the film, the song is sung entirely by Bombalurina, who has been turned into one of Macavity’s henchmen. This takes away the very important, albeit short and vague, narrative of a character who was abused and escaped her torture. I know you might be thinking, “it’s a cat, what does it matter,” but this one hits too close to home for me to not mention.


Now, despite all of this, there were quite a few things that I did enjoy.


  1. Jennifer Hudson. That woman is a god-send. I knew she’d be able to pull it off ever since I heard that she was going to be in the film. The most famous Grizabella, Elaine Paige, is typically the only one that will make me cry during “Memory” due to the sheer emotion and pain in her performance, but Jennifer Hudson did put a lump in my throat. Kudos to her.
  2. Skimbleshanks. Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat is one of my favorite characters. He is a cat that patrols the railway stations and is said to keep order on the trains. I was going to fall apart in my seat if they did him wrong in the film like they did some of the others, but I was very pleased. The man portraying him is Steven McRae, a principal dancer with the Royal Ballet. I knew from the beginning that he would be able to nail the dance routine and he did not disappoint. They turned it into a huge tap number and I love tap-dancing, especially the more difficult routines.
  3. Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer. Those are two more of my favorite characters. They’re (literal) cat burglars who cause nothing but trouble, even though they aren’t very good at it. At heart, they’re just very mischievous kittens who like causing a ruckus. They changed them a bit in the film, but nothing too dramatic. However, that isn’t what I want to talk about. I want to talk about their song. Somewhere along the lines, the original song in the stage version was changed from a jazz number to a faster-paced something-or-another. It’s somewhat jazzy, but there’s something else I can’t quite explain. While I thoroughly enjoy this version, the film took it back to the slow jazz number that the original fans will recognize and love.
  4. “Beautiful Ghosts.” Taylor Swift and Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote a new song for the film for the character Victoria. I originally took issue with this, because Victoria is supposed to be completely silent other than during group songs and is meant to represent the grace and beauty of the musical. However, the song is truly beautiful and works with how they rewrote Victoria.
  5. The Royal Ballet. As mentioned before, Steven McRae (Skimbleshanks) is in the Royal Ballet, but so is Francesca Hayward, who plays Victoria. I am very glad that they chose these actors and many other talented dancers for a dance-heavy musical.
  6. Sir Ian McKellen. I have followed Ian McKellen throughout the years through X-Men and Lord of the Rings, and that might be how you know him as well. However, a lot of people are unaware that he has been in many plays on Broadway and in London. I honestly don’t believe there was anyone who could’ve been a better fit to play Gus the Theater Cat in the Cats film. Gus is an old, withering cat actor who spends his time relishing in the memories of his youth when he was considered “famous.” Sir Ian McKellen is getting on up there in his years as well and it saddens me to think about it. There was only one time I cried actual tears while watching the film and it was when he sang his song. I already knew it was going to make me cry, but I was not prepared.


From a Cats superfan, this was my review of the live-action film. It definitely wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t terrible. I’d give it a three out of five stars. Now go forth and remember…


“A cat is not a dog.”