When Victoria is tossed into the entrance of a dirty alley, just off a night-darkened London square, the young and frightened cat has no idea what might befall her. She simply knows she’s no longer wanted. Stuffed in a bag and discarded, she’s no longer loved.
But the delicate and beautiful white cat is certainly not … alone.
It seems that young Victoria has thumped down in her new trash-littered home on a very special night. It’s the night of the Jellicle Ball, a once-a-year event when the whole tribe of Jellicle cats from far and wide gathers for a most incredible happening. They tell stories, sing songs, dance freely and name names—for a cat’s true third name is a mysterious and difficult thing. And then the Jellicle matriarch, Old Deuteronomy, arrives to make a choice.
It’s all a complete mystery to young Victoria, but at the peak of the Jellicle Ball she’s told that a single cat will be chosen and sent aloft to the Heviside Layer where that special he or she will leave all their cares behind and find a rebirth in a new life. And there are several eager candidates this year.
There’s the lazy tabby Jennyanydots who longs to move on to greater feats than training mice and cockroaches to sing and dance. There’s the incredibly rotund Bustopher Jones, who wants to be young and svelte. Some say his dream is to be skinny again so he can just overeat his way to corpulent gluttony once more.
Then there’s Old Theater Cat and Rum Tum Tugger and others who want the evening’s grand golden chance. But the cat that catches Victoria’s eye is a sad and tattered feline. She’s old, a grey outcast, shunned by the others, a cat that looks as lost and sad as Victoria sometimes feels inside. Her name is Grizabella. And it’s whispered that she once was glamourous and beautiful before falling in with and being corrupted by a foul alley cat called Macavity.
Ah, and even that depraved and magical alley cat wants a shot at Heviside Layer and a chance to start anew. And Macavity, ever a dangerous deceiver, will go to any lengths to make it happen.
Of course, Victoria isn’t even a Jellicle, so she can do nothing more than simply dance, watch and wait as the Ball winds on. Who will it be? Who will find his or her dream?
And … what misdeeds will unfold before the fateful choice is made?
At one point, Victoria sings of her longing for a place to belong and her desire for happiness. That appears to be one of the things that draws her to the sad outcast Grizabella. Victoria even reaches out to comfort the older cat.
As for the Jellicle Cat tribe, they’re mostly all strays and outcasts—some who openly welcome Victoria and others that stand a bit aloof. But eventually they all find a sense of belonging and family together.
One thing that all the Jellicles have in common is a wary fear of the devious Macavity. And though none of them are a singularly as strong as he is, together they’re able to foil his mischevious plans.
The musical story takes place on the night of the Jellicle Moon, a magical time. And there’s plenty of conjuring afoot here. The baddie Macavity use puffs of magic to secretly kidnap different cats and rematerialize them on an old dock where they’re tied up in chains. And there’s a wand-waving cat called Mr. Mistoffelees who wears a magician’s top hat and performs hit-or-miss magic acts. He makes a missing cat reappear, creates a thunder clap, and levitates himself and other objects, for instance
Lyrics to the song “Jellicle Cats” speak of a cat “sitting on a broomstick” and being a “familiar with candle, with book and with bell.” And that’s the closest hint that the wizardry here might somehow be connected to witchy spirituality. Other than that quickly passing lyric, though, the origin of magic in this story is never addressed again.
Another lyric talks of a cat singing “pieces from the Messiah, Hallelujah, angelical choir.” And the revered Old Deuteronomy lives up to her biblical name in a sense. She is looked upon as something of a judge and a revered ancient matriarch. It’s said many of the Jellicle cats gathered are her progeny.
[Spoiler Warning] Near the end of the musical a cat climbs into a balloon and slowly soars up until it disappears into a bank of clouds.
The formfitting furry coverings of the human/cat dancers and singers certainly accentuates their bodies’ curves. But it’s nothing more revealing than you might see in a ballet. (In fact, some of the actors’ and actresses’ curves were reported to have been digitally minimized so as not to draw undue attention to them.)
Some of the slinky cat dance moves and hip-thrusts could be described as being somewhat sensual.
The troublemaker cats Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer break into a human house at one point and pull large human bloomers and a bra out of a bedroom dresser. A female cat lies on her back, spreads her legs wide and scratches her inner thigh, though it’s played for “fat cat” comic effect. A cat jokes about a male cat being neutered.
A cat sings of training up mice to sing in a band and cockroaches to march; while doing so. she occasionally grabs her tiny, human-looking cockroaches and gobbles them down. Later, after being kidnapped, she thumps a thuggish cat in the crotch to escape. Some cats bare their claws and slash at other felines. A fat cat gets catapulted onto the edge of a drainage pipe, where he slips and comically thumps down on his crotch. A couple cats are threatened by a barking dog offscreen. An elderly feline is forced to walk a plank over a large body of water, before being rescued at the last moment.
Macavity’s helpers sprinkle and drop catnip into the faces of a crowd of cats, in essence drugging them so that they stagger around and are unable to put up a fight.
A neon sign in the background of one scene reads “London Gin.”
A cat sings merrily of his own gluttony and gobbles morsels from numerous trash cans as he goes. Two nearly identical cats sing about sneaking into humans’ houses and happily causing all sorts of pilfering, destructive mischief. (And we see them do just that, as well as helping Macavity kidnap other cats).
Macavity sings of being a mysterious and deceitful feline who regularly defies the law. He calls himself a “monster of depravity.”
At Plugged In, we tend to focus our reviews primarily on the content and worldview issues of a film. We strive to give you and your family the information you need to determine whether a given movie is right for you. Then, somewhere down the line, we might address moviemaking aesthetics.
So, in a way, that makes the new movie version of Cats—the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical that’s been earning public acclaim since 1981—a fairly elusive beasty to pin down. I mean, this musical play toy is pretty much all aesthetics.
So let me start by saying that as far as nasty movie bits are concerned, there’s very little in this film to worry over. The whole cat-dance concept is broadly fantastical and relatively positive. And this film reminds and challenges viewers not judge others harshly, but to look forward to the hope of a brighter tomorrow.
There are some splashes of magic in the mix, but it’s all very abstract and unexplained. In fact, the most concerning thing about this musical, from a parent’s perspective, may well be that the CGI transformation of the human dancers into their kitty-form leaves them all in a very tight layer of fur that hugs every muscular curve on their bodies. That said, the movie version actually cuts back on some of the more sensual dancing numbers from the stage production, avoiding overtly sexualized movements and behavior.
So, what about those aesthetics then? Let me, uh, let the cat out of the bag and tell you that all those reported fears of this CGI version looking odd or creepy are overblown. In fact, it’s the visual aspects of the show’s colorful kitties, London streets, back alleys and oversized furniture sets that shine here, along with some very nicely choreographed stage movements and dance numbers. If you know and love this musical, you’ll likely be purring over these elements like a kitten with her own personal waterfall of cream.
However, there’s a pretty major aesthetic downside here, too. Cats functions more like an anthology of songs and musical theater numbers than it does as an intricate or compelling story. Thus, the material demands performers who can nail these tunes and dance numbers to a scratching post and hit you between the eyes with their singing chops. In that department, this version of Cats has been declawed. There are plenty of well-known actors, personalities and dancers in the roles, but true singers are few and far between.
In fact, on some numbers, the lyrics are nearly indecipherable. On others, the voices are thin and wispy or choked out by too many tears. Arguably the most engaging song in the show is delivered by Taylor Swift … during the credits. So, if you’re approaching this Broadway classic for the first time, well, this might not be the cinematic catnip you’re expecting.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.