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‘Cats’: Musical will be catnip for some moviegoers (you know who you are)

Judi Dench in a scene from “Cats.” (Universal Pictures / TNS)
Judi Dench in a scene from “Cats.” (Universal Pictures / TNS)
By Michael O’Sullivan Washington Post

Having just watched “Cats,” the movie version of the hit musical about something called “Jellicle cats,” it is clear that “Jellicle” must be cat speak for “wackadoodle.”

Of course, cats don’t actually speak. But neither do they sing their little feline hearts out or have oddly unsettling human breasts and faces that make them look like the winner of a Halloween costume contest as the Cowardly Lion.

Neither do they wear red pants with suspenders or dance all sexy-like in front of a miniature chorus line of human hoofers dressed up like cockroaches – all in competition to be selected for ascension to heaven (called the Heaviside layer here), where, presumedly, the winner of the contest, called the Jellicle Ball, will be reincarnated in the next of nine lives.

And that, dear friends, is the last attempt at a synopsis that you will read in this review. Some people say that “Cats” – based on the silly little 1939 children’s book “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” by poet T.S. Eliot, set to music in 1981 by Andrew Lloyd Webber and now adapted for the screen by Tom Hooper (“The Danish Girl”) – has no plot.

But by “plot” they probably mean “point.” And by “some people,” I mean me. But it is what it is, and boy is it ever. This is not to say that “Cats” the movie is the same as “Cats” the stage play – not by a long shot.

The long-running live show features people in cat makeup, wigs and furry, striped bodysuits that made them look like a troupe of Russian acrobats auditioning for Cirque du Soleil.

“Cats” the movie features prestigious performers from stage, screen, music and dance – including Jennifer Hudson, Sir Ian McKellen, Dame Judi Dench, Idris Elba, Rebel Wilson, James Corden and ballerina Francesca Hayward – all tricked out in digitally generated fur.

It is simultaneously so lifelike and so creepily hallucinatory that the cast looks like a colony of feral felines who have taken up permanent residence in the uncanny valley. None of this is by way of saying that “Cats” is bad, per se.

In fact, some of the songs are pretty toe-tapping at times, and the dancing, which includes turns by the French siblings known as Les Twins (who play cats wearing, inexplicably, sneakers), is well choreographed for the screen by Andy Blankenbuehler.

Wisely or rashly, the film embraces the decisions its creative team has made – which include a set decorated with oversize furniture to make the cats look smaller – with a commitment that is admirable, if also, inevitably, off-putting to a large part of the potential audience. But those people were never going to see “Cats” in the first place.

The first trailer alone, which looked so alarming to so many that the film’s effects team actually dialed back the CGI fur, should be sufficient to tell you whether this movie is for you. And if you need more help making up your mind, just go back and read that paragraph with the synopsis.

It also helps to like cats (meaning the animal, and not just “Cats”). Jellicle in the context of the show is a play on “angelical” – a pun that is only really obvious when you hear it, not read it – and Eliot clearly had an affection for the beasts. But as catlike as they may look, the cats in “Cats” are not really cats at all.

It feels odd to have to type that out, but some people continue to make the mistake of thinking the musical is a love song to their pets. As Old Deuteronomy (Dench) sings toward the end of the film, “You’ve learned enough to take the view that cats are very much like you.” So it does have a point after all: Cats are people.

That certainly will be enough for some. One other thing to be learned from watching “Cats”: For people who like this sort of thing – and you know who you are – “Cats” is just the sort of thing you will like.

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