Will Cats be the latest box office smash that the critics mauled?

A newspaper cartoon this week spoke volumes, as the best ones always do. It was a cats’ litter tray and a notice above it said: ‘Reviews in here please.’

Yes, the critical reaction to the new movie version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage musical, itself inspired by the poems of T.S. Eliot, has — almost without exception — been unforgivingly sharp of tooth and claw.

And yet there was one exception. Me. I admired the film and in my Mail film column anointed it with four stars, which rather made me stick out like a corgi in a cattery.

Cattery is the word. The Telegraph’s man awarded the film — which features Dame Judi Dench, Sir Ian McKellen, Idris Elba, James Corden, Ray Winstone, Rebel Wilson and Taylor Swift — no stars out of five.

Taylor Swift, Jennifer Hudson, Idris Elba and Dame Judi Dench appear in the official trailer for Cats

Taylor Swift, Jennifer Hudson, Idris Elba and Dame Judi Dench appear in the official trailer for Cats

He called it ‘an all-time disaster, a rare and star-spangled calamity which will leave jaws littered across floors and agents unemployed’. It is the first time in a decade that he has denied a film even a single star. (The last one, animal rights conspiracy theorists should note, was the 2009 release Old Dogs, starring John Travolta and Robin Williams).

The chap in The Times was almost as scathing. Doling out just the one star, he described it as ‘a nightmare’, asserting that the film might appeal to folk enduringly devoted to the original Cats soundtrack, but if you are ‘anyone else on Planet Earth, boy are you going to struggle’.

His one-star assessment was matched by the Guardian’s critic, whose damning review was entirely written, with absolutely no apology to T.S. Eliot, in rhyming couplets. He described Jennifer Hudson’s big moment as Grizabella, her performance of the celebrated Lloyd Webber song Memory, as ‘warbling warbling warbling piffle’. He also derided the androgynous costumes. ‘And then Idris Elba comes on as Macavity . . . There’s a prominent gap in his penis locality.’

Well, bravo for that. It’s a great gag, which made me laugh out loud. But I still believe they’re all wrong, my fellow critics. I think Cats, while decidedly weird, is a terrific spectacle.

I love the enchanting lead performance of the Royal Ballet’s Francesca Hayward, who plays Victoria, the White Cat.

Similarly, McKellen is charming in his shabby dressing-gown as sad old Gus, The Theatre Cat, while Dench, so unused to critical maulings and not insulated from them even in the improbably vast fur coat she wears as venerable, seen-it-all Old Deuteronomy, really does not deserve the catcalls she’s been getting.

I don’t mind conceding that the movie does yield one of the more disturbing cinematic images of modern times. That’s Rebel Wilson as Jennyanydots, wearing a kind of XXX-sized hairy onesie, lying on her back scratching her crotch and eating cockroaches.

But on the whole, there are many more reasons to applaud than to boo. The Borrowers-type sets and props are wonderful, the songs translate nicely to the screen, there’s lots of highly impressive choreography, Lee Hall’s screenplay is ingenious, and director Tom Hooper keeps the whole thing miaowing along with great elan.

So could it be there’s more to this savaging than meets the eye? I think there is. From the moment the widely scorned trailer was released in July, here was a film certain to be catnip to critics.

I love the enchanting lead performance of the Royal Ballet's Francesca Hayward, who plays Victoria, the White Cat

I love the enchanting lead performance of the Royal Ballet’s Francesca Hayward, who plays Victoria, the White Cat

I suspect a few of my counterparts had made up their minds before they even saw it. Moreover, I detect a strong whiff of metropolitan snobbery towards Lloyd Webber, one of the film’s producers, who is so often and so unfairly belittled.

The truth, unpalatable to the liberal so-called intelligentsia, is that he’s a genius, and a versatile one at that. As Evita is essentially an opera, so is Cats really a ballet.

Still, as all critics know, it’s much easier (and more entertaining) to knock than to praise. As we also know, judging films is nothing if not a subjective business, setting us at odds not only with each other, but those we like to think we serve, the cinema-going public.

In my review, I suggest that eight out of ten cinemagoers will love Cats. On the basis that those who reckon they’re certain to hate it will stay away, I still think that’s about right. And if the box office returns do confound most critics, well, it won’t be the first time. Not even during this festive season.

I suspect a few of my counterparts had made up their minds before they even saw it. Moreover, I detect a strong whiff of metropolitan snobbery towards Lloyd Webber, one of the film's producers, who is so often and so unfairly belittled

I suspect a few of my counterparts had made up their minds before they even saw it. Moreover, I detect a strong whiff of metropolitan snobbery towards Lloyd Webber, one of the film’s producers, who is so often and so unfairly belittled

I was among the harshest critics of the romantic comedy Last Christmas, written by Emma Thomson and inspired by the songs of George Michael.

I sat through it with an almost physical clench of embarrassment and in my review declared it silly, mawkish, poorly acted and badly scripted.

Well, guess what? Since it came out in mid-November, it’s been doing rather nicely, grossing more than $100 million worldwide so far, and hovering between number two and three in Britain’s top films.

I also suggested Last Christmas was Thompson’s attempt to write a new Love Actually, a 2003 Richard Curtis picture I loathe, though millions adore it. It’s one of the most successful romcoms of the century and now part of the Christmas film canon along with It’s A Wonderful Life (itself far from a hit when it was released in 1946) and Miracle On 34th Street.

Given this kind of disconnect between critics and the public, do highly opinionated film reviews even matter? I happen to think they do, very much. All right, I would, wouldn’t I? But once you’ve found a critic you trust it’s an immensely valuable resource in deciding what to watch or miss. Also, it’s fun after the event to see whether you’re in agreement.

Besides, we don’t only serve a function. The best critics are worth reading for the quality of their writing — and as I find myself so far out on a limb on Cats, like a bewildered moggy stuck up a tree, I can only hope that I at least belong in that gang.

Nonetheless, it will be fascinating to see in the coming weeks whether I’m the one wildly at odds with the public, or whether Cats will join the likes of 2017 musical The Greatest Showman, and last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody, on the long list of movies that so sharply divide critics from the only people who really matter in this equation, those who buy tickets?

Like many reviewers, I didn’t much care for The Greatest Showman, which starred Hugh Jackman as the pioneering circus impresario P.T. Barnum. And much as I love Queen, I couldn’t work out why anyone would prefer the clunky Freddie Mercury biopic to the much better and more imaginative Rocketman, about Elton John.

Nonetheless, it will be fascinating to see in the coming weeks whether I'm the one wildly at odds with the public, or whether Cats will join the likes of 2017 musical The Greatest Showman, and last year's Bohemian Rhapsody, on the long list of movies that so sharply divide critics from the only people who really matter in this equation, those who buy tickets?

Nonetheless, it will be fascinating to see in the coming weeks whether I’m the one wildly at odds with the public, or whether Cats will join the likes of 2017 musical The Greatest Showman, and last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody, on the long list of movies that so sharply divide critics from the only people who really matter in this equation, those who buy tickets?

I am still mildly outraged by the choice of Rami Malek as Best Actor in this year’s Academy Awards for his performance as Mercury, given that he couldn’t even get the better of his dentures.

But tens of millions of box office dollars tell me that in the case of both those films, and not a few others down the years, my judgment was out of step and out of tune with audiences everywhere.

Which brings me to musical theatre, for it’s not just movie critics whose verdicts are sometimes trampled on by hordes of people rushing to the box office.

A new documentary about Fiddler On The Roof recalls how the stage show was a critical flop when it opened in 1964. ‘A near-miss,’ concluded the man in the New York Times, only to see it become the longest-running hit on Broadway and in due course a much-loved film.

In 1981, another musical opened in London’s West End to rhapsodic reviews. The Sunday Times declared it ‘among the most exhilarating and innovative musicals ever staged’. It was called Cats.

Will it become a much-loved film, too? I wouldn’t bet against it, despite what the critics say. After all, what do they know?

 

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