So here we are then. The Cats movie.
In some ways, it feels inevitable. The 2010s have been a surrealist nightmare, in which the membrane between reality and satire has become spongy and porous, leaving us adrift in a slurry of base-level insanity and Tik Tok videos. How else could this decade end? Cats is deeply, profoundly, indescribably strange, as miscalculated and wrongheaded as any Hollywood product since The Day the Clown Cried. Nothing about it makes sense. It plays like a children’s film, yet pulses with an undeniable (and, needless to say, uncomfortable) sexual energy. It attempts to communicate joy through character design more at home in a horror movie. It clearly cost an obscene amount of money, yet is slated to open against the “final” movie in the world’s most popular film franchise. And while I cannot in good conscience recommend seeing it, I also can’t deny the joy of seeing it in a theater full of people in a similar state of gobsmacked delirium.
The issues begin with the plot, and the fact that there isn’t one to speak of. Based on a series of unconnected nonsense poems by T. S. Eliot*, Cats centers on Victoria (newcomer Francesca Hayward), a stray cat in London who is taken in by the Jellicle Cats on their way to the Jellicle Ball (I have no idea what “Jellicle” means in this context, despite having heard two lengthy songs on the subject). The Jellicle Ball is evidently a yearly event in which Old Deuteronomy (Dame Judi Dench) selects one cat to be “given a new life,” which sounds an awful lot like a roundabout way of saying “death.” To garner Deuteronomy’s favor, each cat delivers a lengthy song explaining their character traits (though it should be noted that the bulk of the songs are performed before the cats make it to the ball; I can only assume the cats submitted demo tapes in advance to save time). Jenny Anydots (Rebel Wilson) is a fat cat who likes to eat. Bustopher Jones (James Corden) is also a fat cat who likes to eat. Skimbleshanks (Steven McRae) is a flamboyant tapdancing cat who dresses like a shirtless train conductor. All the while, however, the sinister Macavity (Idris Elba) lurks in the shadows, magically teleporting the Jellicles one by one onto a barge to eliminate the competition. That’s… pretty much the whole movie. I assume the structure makes more sense as a stage revue; on screen, it simply feels like a plot that never gets started.
Prior to its release, much derision was cast toward the “digital fur technology” vaunted by Cats’ producers. In its defense, I will say this: the fur actually does look good. I don’t know how much of what we see is practical costuming and how much is the Digital Fur Technology (DFT?), but it blends well and looks not only like real fur, but like cat fur specifically. The problem isn’t the technology; the problem is what happens when you apply that technology to the sleek, fully exposed, genital-free body of Idris Elba. Let me put it simply: the cats of Cats are horrifying. Rather than immerse us in a fantasy world, these human-CG hybrids plop us squarely in the Uncanny Valley. The seamlessness of the character design can’t help but draw the eye both to the elements of human anatomy still present (the fully-exposed hands, the unnervingly pronounced breasts) and those conspicuously erased (their, um, jellicles). This is a family entertainment that seems hell-bent on making you feel uncomfortable, one way or the other.
Has Tom Hooper ever met a cat? It’s a valid question. The cats shift in size from one scene to another, but generally appear to be slightly larger than mice. (There are also mice in this movie, incidentally. They’re played by children; it’s best not to think about the implications). The actors have clearly been trained in animal-like movement, but come off more simian than feline. Mischievous Mungojerrie is a male calico, which, while not impossible, is a one-in-three-thousand genetic implausibility. According to one puff-piece, Hooper had never even heard of catnip until a psychedelic scene was suggested by Taylor Swift’s dad on set. The tagline to Cats is “You will believe.” Does Tom Hooper actually think cats are mythological creatures made up for the musical?
Of course, this would also suggest a familiarity with the musical. While it’s perhaps not the oddest thing about the film, one peculiarity is that the character design takes few cues from the lyrics, many of which are literally just physical descriptions of the cats. “That’s Jenny Any-Dots!” narrator-cat Munkustrap exclaims upon seeing Wilson’s striped tabby. “Macavity’s a ginger cat,” the Taylor Swift cat croons of Elba’s cocoa-colored villain. “Jellicle Cats are black and white,” sings a chorus of multicolored Jellicle Cats. Similarly, little thought has been put into internal consistency. Some cats wear amusing people-clothes; others simply strut around nude. Many of the cats who do wear clothes wear bulky coats which look alarmingly like the fur of other cats. Wilson wears a zippered cat-fur cat suit over her clothes, over her actual cat fur. I’m trying to believe in cats, Tom, but you’re testing my credulity so far I’m beginning to doubt my own cat is real.
This inconsistency extends to the performances themselves. Given that seemingly the entire film was shot on greenscreen, it’s anyone’s guess how many actors were actually on the same set together. They certainly seem to think they’re in different movies: Elba acts as if he’s in a children’s theater production; Jason Derulo acts as if he’s in a Jason Derulo video; Sir Ian McKellan acts as if he’s in a hidden-camera prank show which he figured out five minutes in, but continues to be a good sport and play along. Perhaps no one stands out more starkly than Jennifer Hudson, tasked with performing the musical’s hit single “Memories.” Hudson pours her heart and soul into the power ballad, seemingly unaware that she would be digitally transformed into a creation resembling the garbage monster from Mulholland Drive. (“Memories,” along with the perfunctory new song co-written by Swift and Andrew Lloyd Weber, is the one song not based on Eliot’s poetry, and, seeing it in context for the first time, I was struck by how much it sticks out itself. It’s like someone spliced a Celine Dion song into the middle of book of limericks).
Watching Cats, I couldn’t help but think of this year’s other gigantic feline CGI extravaganza: Disney’s newly animated remake of The Lion King (I refuse to engage with the fiction that that film, which contains no actual animals, is “live action”). How much better would both films be if their approaches were switched? The CG-enhanced costuming of Cats could certainly have yielded intriguing results if applied to the inventive designs of Julie Taymor’s stage adaptation of the ‘90s Disney hit. Likewise, in an age where internet cat videos are perhaps the one universally beloved form of entertainment, Cats might have been an easier pill to swallow if its characters were somehow imposed on real, or at least photorealistic, felines. I’m not saying it wouldn’t be strange– it’s probably impossible to make a Cats movie that isn’t– but it would at the very least likely be less actively upsetting.
All that being said, you didn’t come here to find out if Cats was bad. Of course Cats is bad; the question is, is it so bad it’s good? The answer to that likely depends on a highly personal calculus of your threshold for camp divided by how much you have to pay to see it (as always, a matinee at the Somerville is the best deal in town). What Cats is, however, is so bad it’s amazing. It spent untold millions and employed literally hundreds of effects artists, and ended up looking like a cross between a children’s pantomime, a Residents CD-ROM, and a dark crevice of DeviantArt. Several critics have reported seeing prints with literally unfinished digital effects, and I noticed several moments seemingly missing musical cues. By the final scene, in which Dench turns to the camera and speak-sings at length about the understanding of cats, my audience was in tears of laughter. Its life in theaters may be brief, but it seems destined to live on in midnight showings and double features with The Island of Dr. Moreau, or possibly Nightbreed. Cats is the kind of bad movie you’ll tell your kids about, and they probably won’t believe you. Is it any good? Of course not. But to a certain breed of cinemasochist, it will be catnip– whatever that is.
* – That book, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, was a favorite of mine as a child; I had a particularly rad edition illustrated by Edward Gorey. I eventually received a copy of the Cats original cast recording on cassette, and was confused when the songs didn’t match the melodies in my head.
dir. Tom Hooper
Opens Friday, 12/20 everywhere (though the Hassle recommends the Somerville Theatre or your local independent multiplex)