Review: Forget CGI. Dench is the special effect in 'Cats'

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This image released by Universal Pictures shows Jennifer Hudson as Grizabella in a scene from "Cats." (Universal Pictures via AP)

There’s apparently enough groundbreaking technology used in “Cats” for NASA to send a rocket to unexplored parts of the universe — perhaps to a far-off planet where cats sing, dance on two legs, and recite T.S. Eliot poetry in half-Cockney accents.

But let’s forget the much-discussed “digital fur technology” used to turn stars like Jennifer Hudson, Taylor Swift and Idris Elba into state-of-the-art, fabulous felines. Spoiler (or spoiled milk) alert: It’s not the technology that makes a whisker of difference here (sorry for the cat puns, but if you see this film, you’d better get used to them).

No, it’s an old-school quality that's the real “special effect” worth talking about in ”Cats,” the new film version of the Andrew Lloyd Webber juggernaut that launched the mega-musical in the '80s: veteran stage talent. Case one: Judi Dench, who can take any silliness and somehow make it genuine and moving, even in a computer-generated cat suit. Case two: her old friend Ian McKellen, who can embody an aging cat as well as he can Gandalf or Macbeth (which he once played opposite Dench). Case three: James Corden, who, let’s not forget, is a Tony-winning stage actor especially good at slapstick, which he uses here to amusing effect.

Bottom line: However you feel about “Cats” the show — and let’s face it, some love it and some hate it, EXACTLY as it will be with this film — give director Tom Hooper credit for assembling a cast that knows its way around a stage. This estimable group includes, along with the theater veterans, music stars like Hudson and Swift, who each make the most of one blockbuster number suited to their talents. It includes movie stars like Elba — who talks and growls more than sings — and Rebel Wilson, a “Gumbie cat" who really should be called a “Raunchy cat."

And dance stars. Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler ("Hamilton") brings in top talents like Robbie Fairchild, the former New York City Ballet principal dancer who can sing and act, too, besides being one of the most graceful cats in the alley. Alongside him dances Francesca Hayward, a principal dancer with the Royal Ballet, in the ingenue role of Victoria, and other stars of ballet, tap dance and hip hop.

Before explaining the plot — and really, there's never been much to explain — a brief primer: “Cats" is not so much a show as a cultural phenomenon. It ran in London's West End for 21 years, and on Broadway for 18. Those are just the original productions; it has been performed in more than 50 countries and in 19 languages.

All this for a show with no real narrative arc, based on a series of poems adapted by Webber from Eliot's 1939 “Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats." Here, as opposed to the stage show, the action is set in 1930s London, where Eliot would have lived.

It is Victoria (Hayward) who begins our story. The innocent young newcomer is unceremoniously dumped by her owner in an alleyway. Suddenly she is surrounded by cats — the Jellicle cats, who have come together for the annual Jellicle Ball. (Their opening song, “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats," is addictively catchy.)