Cats and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

What a strange night was last Tuesday in the life of a London film reviewer. I can’t remember a similar occasion. Critics were herded in the Odeon Leicester Square for Cats before pouring out and immediately crossing the wintry concours to line up around the Cineworld IMAX for Star Wars, all as scaffolding was clanging up preparing for the double premieres of both movies the next night.

Claws will be out for this Cats, I’m sure. There was a lot of snide snickering in the audience among critics at the screening I attended, but there was also applause and singing along from younger kids, who really seemed to enjoy it.

Let’s be honest, it’s not brilliant, which may be both the fault of this Tom Hooper version of it and also the fault of the original Andrew Lloyd Weber version. I don’t think that, despite its longevity and ubiquity as a stage show, anyone would have it down as one of the great musicals in terms of story or song writing.

But it is not a CAT-astrophe, certainly not the one many feared (and some gleeful cynics hoped) following the trailer earlier this year. Hooper and his team have just about pulled it out of the fire and got it over the line, like a cat somehow landing on its feet.

There’s a rough structure, with a new arrival among London’s cats (Victoria) who’s the ingenue eyes and ears just as they’re all assembling for a kind of Jellicle talent show, which the evil McAvity (Idris Elba) wants to win at all costs.

And yet the choreography is uninventive and jerky, so blurred by overloaded CGI which struggles to get the cat fur to move with the performers’ bodies, the cat ears being a particular problem. And the tails, which keep popping in and out of shot like meerkats.

Only newcomer Francesca Hayward seems to have mastered the movement and requirements. Hers is a genuine standout performance, probably helped by the fact that she’s an unknown, but her grace and singing are both gorgeous and provide a welcome, joyous presence throughout.

As for the starry cat cast, you really struggle to recognise them under the furry blur of effects which render their movements most ungraceful. Jason Derulo, for example, might as well not have bothered, Taylor Swift doesn’t quite shine through the outfits, and as for a clumsy Rebel Wilson scratching her fat furry arse, who ever really needs to see that? 

Worst of all, poor Judi Dench as Old Deuteronomy looks utterly lost, like someone abandoned by relatives in a retirement home over Christmas. It’s almost heartbreaking. She’s delivered some wonderful musical numbers in her career, from Cabaret to Send in the Clowns but her finale here is not a highpoint.

James Corden is, at least, immediately recognisable, although utterly charmless and annoying while falling into dustbins as greedy Bustopher Jones and somehow Jennifer Hudson makes a right old mess of Memory, singing it with snot running down her nose and sounding bunged up.

It’s left to Sir Ian McKellen to steal the show as Old Gus the Theatre Cat, with his one great number, which proves you can do it if you try, mainly by standing still so the digital compositors don’t put whiskers all over your famous face.

Despite everything, most of the songs do work, the musical arrangements and the singing are generally fine, and the sets are always interesting. A couple of numbers are stinkers – the one with the mice and the cockroaches is a dog’s dinner – but several work very well, particularly with Rumpleteazer and Mungjerrie as the cat burglars, and the opener Jellicle Cats has a nice bounce to it as we settle in to the oddness of the concept. 

It’s all a bit weird, to be honest, and that’s actually the film’s saving grace, the surreality of it all. Although I think all concerned were a bit scaredy cat to go all out on the bizarreness. They could have beefed up the script or put in some jokes or wit (punning street signs that say Catsino or Milk Bar don’t count) or ramped up the sexiness of all that sniffing and slinking, but there are sparks of sheer pleasure and enough moments of charm to leave plenty of audiences purring.

Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker

Richard E Grant in Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker

Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker is the 9th episode and, they promise, the finale of the saga that began 42 years ago. But it’s also the end of the recent trilogy rebooted by J J Abrams, the one with Daisy Ridley as Rey, John Boyega as Finn, Oscar Isaac as Poe and Adam Driver as Kylo Ren.

I’m not a Star Wars fan, so I felt my emotional involvement waning as the film barrelled on to a climax of revelations that didn’t really shock, not in the way Vader’s “I am your father,” made you gasp. These ones are a bit wtf tbh.

But the film clips along at a pace, jumping from planet to planet, from escapade to narrow escape, and most scenes end with someone shouting “We gotta go!” Mostly, Daisy Ridley sets her chin firmly towards the skies and lets strands of her drift across her face, channelling the force or the Jedi spirit. She does ok and has generally impressed throughout this series. 

I was disappointed with Boyega’s role. I don’t blame him at all, he’s risen to the challenge beautifully, coolly, but his character over the last couple of movies has drifted badly and he’s just not given enough to work with emotionally, even when there appears to be some connection with Naomi Ackie’s new comer Jannah.

The plot has Emperor Palatine rising again, but he doesn’t look very threatening to me and nobody really explains his powers nor what his army of Siths might do in power.  But then quite what the Resistance stand for, I don’t know either. I know one’s bad, the other good, but what I’m saying is, after all the politics of the last few months, is that neither party seems to me to have a clear manifesto nor a coherent campaign slogan. I was really afraid Boris was going to turn up and steamroller through both, like he did with that Japanese kid at rugby.

Look, this was fine, even if it became a little tedious in the one-paced freneticism of cramming so much in. There were certainly some decent set-pieces but most of which, frankly, I’d seen before in other Star Wars movies, and there were generally followed by the usual on-board banter about who’s a better pilot or mechanic, topped with a cute bit of droid business. There’s even just about time for a Chewbacca subplot and a sweet diversion about wiping C3PO’s hard drive. 

But considering the hype and the significance of this key text in modern cinema coming to a finale, it was all a bit uninspiring. I thought the final Harry Potter was better, and I much preferred the last Star Wars, Episode VIII, the one all the fans apparently didn’t like, but which seemed a bit funnier and more self-aware and riskier and which gave the excellent Adam Driver much more to do.

I did like Richard E Grant and Domhnall Gleason in this as new baddies and Naomi Ace and Keri Russell are briefly allowed to usher in some interesting possibilities for Poe and Finn, but this episdoe is all about tying up the ends rather than forging new beginnings, so I felt some dramatic momentum was lost while making sure all the characters took a bow (yes, even the dead ones) and ensuring the fans go home happy, which I’m sure most of them will.

Don’t be fooled though – this isn’t the end of the Star Wars universe and movies, just the Skywalker saga, if you can believe that. There are plenty of other worlds to explore and half-formed characters to play with, so I’m sure the next slice from the galaxy won’t be too far, far away.