Debuting in 1982, CATS is the fourth longest-running musical on Broadway and has amassed millions of devoted fans worldwide. It was only a matter of time until someone decided to tackle the challenge of bringing the innovative fourth-wall-breaking stage musical to film, and that crazy person is Tom Hooper, directing his second musical adaptation after 2012’s “Les Misérables”. Based on “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” by T. S. Eliot, the story of “Cats” is a selection of poems put into song and it is notoriously hard to follow. Eliot was known for his fanciful made-up words and names, so keeping everything about this unique world and the characters living in it straight is certainly difficult the first time through. 

The plot is fairly simple, yet at the same time utterly confusing. Over the course of a single night, a tribe of cats called the Jellicles make what is known as “the Jellicle choice” and decide which cat will ascend to the Heaviside Layer and come back to a new life. So basically, all of the cats are anxious to die, go to Heaven, and be reborn again… dark. The Jellicles consist of an ensemble cast portraying cats of various personalities, all of whom are likely to break into song and dance, of course. The audience is first introduced to Victoria (Francesca Hayward), a new arrival, and through her POV the first half of the film revolves around introducing members of the tribe who explain how competition to be “the Jellicle choice” goes. There is a villain, Macavity (Idris Elba), who wishes to ascend to the Heavyside Layer at any cost, and he’ll gladly play dirty to get there. Elba’s role is expanded from that of the musical and he mostly satisfies despite going way over the top in a few scenes, but the animation used for his “magic” is laughably bad. In the second half of the film, several cats audition to be “the Jellicle choice” in front of the cats and Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench), the elder and decision-maker of the tribe. This half also provides much more time with Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson), the outcast cat, who is the emotional center of the story and sings the musical’s most well-known and powerful ballad, “Memory”. Dench’s performance as Old Deuteronomy is great and a nice connection to the stage version, where she once played Grizabella on Broadway. Hudson meanwhile steals the show, belting out “Memory” as powerfully and beautifully as it’s ever been sung before.

The majority of the film flows like most musicals do, from one extravagantly choreographed number to the next. Much ado has been made about the CGI fur and bodysuits the actors wear, and visually the film definitely leans on the creepy side. Even the mice and cockroaches have tiny human faces, truly the stuff of nightmares. But for all its wackiness, visual absurdity, and strange movement, most of the film was still a joyful experience and certainly one that you can’t take your eyes off. The songs turned out great, with rock stars like Jason Derulo and Taylor Swift providing memorable numbers, and veteran actors like James Corden, Sir Ian McKellen, Ray Winstone, and Rebel Wilson all infusing their cat with loads of personality.

“Cats” may be full of weird, but its heart is shown in numbers like “Memory”, “Beautiful Ghosts”, and “Mr. Mistoffelees”, and the finale of “The Ad-Dressing of Cats” is always a fan favorite that will have feline lovers heading home to hug their kitty companions. Hooper’s version of the story may be an ambitious mess with spurts of visual horror, but “Cats” is still a crowd-pleasing treat that evokes laughter, joy, heartache, and a rousing desire to sing at the top of your lungs.


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on the emotional experience he has with a film. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

Minisode 31: Murder on the Orient Express

In this minisode we discuss Agatha Christie’s often adapted book to film, Murder on the Orient Express, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, along with Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley, Michelle Pfeiffer, Josh Gad, Penelope Cruz, Leslie Odom Jr., Willem Dafoe, and a handful of other people potentially accused of murder. This story is special for a reason and we enjoy talking about the ethics and morality at play, while also gushing over a beautiful visual aesthetic in the film.


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Murder on the Orient Express (2017)


In all my years of devouring classic literature, I never read a single Agatha Christie novel. A travesty, I know. Arguably her most famous work, Murder on the Orient Express features the famous reoccurring detective Hercule Poirot. The story tells of thirteen stranded strangers on a luxurious train ride, one of them a murderer who Poirot must discover and stop before they kill again. As intriguing as the story is, I’ve intentionally avoided reading the novel or seeing the 1974 film that came before, and therefore will be able to go into this mystery spoiler-free. Branagh’s work is never short on panache and the all-star cast assembled points to an exciting cinematic game of whodunit, reminiscent of the board game Clue.


For me, the success of movie mysteries is largely measured by the answer to two questions: “was it entertaining” and “did it keep me guessing until the end? ” Unexpectedly, the film is very much not a thriller. The style is theatrical in nature, which should be no surprise with Branagh directing, combined with some modern stylish cinematography. It felt very much like Branagh’s tone in Cinderella and made for a weird experience, which to be honest, did not always work for me. At many times I expected the energy of the film to increase as suspects were considered and the investigation grew nearer to resolution, but aside from one or two scenes this felt more like a stage play minus the heightened drama. And that leads into question number two, because despite not knowing the story and end result, I was certainly not guessing until the end. I’ll admit that I did not know every detail until Poirot’s classic reveal speech, but the clues were easy enough to read that it felt more like I was watching to discover how the detective would deal with the outcome versus whether he would learn the truth or not. The “whodunit” simply wasn’t filmed in such a way that lived up to my expectations for an exciting mystery and at times was downright boring.

So far, by my standards, Murder on the Orient Express does not succeed. What saved the experience for me, however, was the story itself. Though I don’t feel like this is a great adaptation, I was definitely intrigued by the moral implications that arose once the killer’s identity was revealed. The questions about justice, and what is right versus wrong, were compelling and it is easy to see why this is one of Agatha Christie’s most beloved stories. Talking through the implications of the ending on the drive home with my 14-year old made for great conversation.

With regards to the stellar cast, I feel a bit cheated. We simply don’t get enough time with each of the many characters to establish much of a connection. The acting is fine, although I’m quite tired of Johnny Depp as a gangster at this point, but no one really stands out because all of the characters are equal and overshadowed by the hero detective. Branagh really just can’t help himself here and his camera keeps Poirot in focus in almost nearly every scene. Those he isn’t in are filmed from his perspective.  There are so many closeups and monologues that the film starts to feel much more about him and less about the mystery. Branagh is no doubt a stellar actor and his presence serves the character well,  but his direction creates an unevenness to the style in Murder on the Orient Express that makes it feel awkward.


I’m glad that I now know the story of Murder on the Orient Express. Christie’s tale is fantastic and is a unique scenario in murder mysteries. It brings up questions about justice, judgment, and forgiveness. Branagh’s adaptation is good, and I don’t regret seeing it, but instead of wanting to re-watch it, I am more compelled to seek out the source material and previous adaptations. Murder on the Orient Express is just an okay film. You can see better, but you could also see a whole lot worse.


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on how his expectations influenced his experience. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.