Why the Cats film adaptation didn't get the critics purring

Sophie Thomas
Sophie Thomas

Ever since the film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats was first discussed, musical theatre fans and film buffs alike have been anticipating how the feline creatures would look when given the Hollywood treatment. It's one of the most successful musicals of all time, following a group of cats trying to ascend to the Heaviside Layer and be reborn. But, how can this eccentric, nonsensical musical work on the screen? 

It's not Tom Hooper's first foray into directing a musical for the silver screen, previously working with a who's who of stars on the 2012 film adaptation of Les Miserables. Now working with everyone from Ray Winstone to Taylor Swift, the Cats cast is "testament to Hooper's well-deserved standing as a top-notch, Oscar-winning director" says Will Gompertz in a two-star review for the BBC. But, even with what the Evening Standard's David Sexton calls a "stellar and admirably diverse cast" (★★), the look and feel of Hollywood's hottest stars has left audiences wondering what Hooper has done with this Andrew Lloyd Webber classic.

"Did director Tom Hooper intend this appearance? Did it make him feel happy - or cause him some stress?" says Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian's one-star write-up, in a poetic review that's in keeping with T.S. Eliot's poem "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats". Earlier this year, the initial Cats trailer sparked fur-ore all over the internet, with people commenting on the appearances of their favourite stars when given the feline treatment. But, has CGI gone too far now? It seems so for Clarisse Loughrey (Independent, ★★), with "Hollywood's insatiable appetite for technological advancement means Cats (employs) "digital fur technology" to create mutant feline-human hybrids", that's almost as uncomfortable as a cat scratching out your eyes.

To Richard Lawson in Vanity Fair, Hooper is his own worst enemy, conceptualising a "movie that claims to honor its performers while smothering them in digital makeup". Tim Robey provided one of the film's most remarkable reviews, withholding even a single star from The Telegraph's review, describing the piece an "all-time disaster - a rare and star-spangled calamity".

But, even with the seemingly unanimous verdict of the what Gompertz describes as "geriatric bodies" on screen, those starring as the clowder of cats put in mightily impressive performances. There's praise for Francesca Hayward, the Royal Ballet star making her film debut as Victoria, with her athletic poise "little diminished by the furriness" (Evening Standard). Actor turned late-night host James Corden is also regarded as a tour de force, delivering a "dapperly dressed fatso with a flair"  as described by Nigel Andrews in the Financial Times (★★★★), while venerated actors Ian McKellen and Judi Dench as Gus the Theatre Cat and Old Deuteronomy respectively add a touch of class to proceedings.

The same can be said for Jennifer Hudson, the Dreamgirls and Hairspray Live actress who plays Grizabella, with audiences purring with delight. Nailing the famous song with "aplomb" (BBC) and "ensuring a moment of truth" (Guardian) stands out in the movie, it's sadly not enough for audiences to get rid of the memory that they're watching a 110-minute long film where humans look like cats.

While the film may feel "plastic, with no heart or soul" for critics like Gompertz, others seem to be marvelling in seemingly cat-astrophic scenes, with Andrews saying the "film has real dash and panache".  Whether these Jellicle Cats would even be allowed to enter the Heaviside Layer is one question, but it's how they'd be reborn that's the answer we're wanting.

Photo credit: Universal Pictures

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