CATS (dir. Tom Hooper): A sin against theater, film, cats, and humanity

Full disclosure: Up until last night’s screening of Cats, my only knowledge of the property came in the form of TV commercials for the Broadway tour which populated much of the ad-time on PBS. Even then, before I knew what furries were, the idea of humans in skin-tight bodysuits prancing around as humanoid cats with a mix and match approach to the depiction of human sex organs never sat well with me. In fact, I blame these commercials (and my mom’s awe toward what she assumed was high-class theater) for my early-in-life dismissiveness toward musical theater.

Luckily for me, I entered into a relationship with a stage actress, and have since become quite a fan of the medium. Through this same channel I found out that in the world of musical theater, disdain towards Cats is pretty common. Knowing that Cats, on paper, is largely considered to be pretty weak (and heavily marketable), certainly helps explain how intensely terrible the film adaptation is, but the addition of poorly rendered CGI bodysuits — complete with animated tails, moving ears, and in the case of one cat, an unending stream of boogers flowing from her nose and into her mouth — takes the film from “it’s weird, but whatever” to “this is physically painful to watch, and now I think I want to get rid of my cat.”

Making the jump from stage to screen is never easy, especially in the case of musicals. Each medium has defining aspects that simply can’t translate to the other. Part of what makes theater so exciting is the notion that we are watching a physical feat occur right in front of our very eyes. What separates film is the use of post-production tricks (editing, sound design, etc) to tell a story. The most successful film adaptations of stage musicals (Chicago, I’m looking at you) manage to give us a little bit of both, using film to showcase the skill of the performers, while also making roles designed to “play to the back row” into something more cinematic. It’s an almost impossible task that very rarely pays off, largely because the source material is designed specifically to be performed live and on stage.

With Cats, bold-yet-boring director Tom Hooper justifies neither the idea of rebooting the play at all, nor doing so as a movie. The design of the show itself is distinctly un-cinematic, and the flat way in which it is shot (along with the piss-poor way the effects were rendered) step on any opportunity it has to impress otherwise. To put it simply, Cats is so repulsive that it defies you to even look at it. And anyone who can find a way to actually engage with the material should have their basement checked for bodies. 

For those not in the know, this is what Cats is about: A group of cats called “Jellicles” have all gathered to see which cat will be selected by an old lady cat to ascend to a better life. The assumption is that the selected cat will die and be reborn into a new life as a new, ostensibly better cat. In order to help the old lady cat facilitate her decision, each eligible cat sings about themselves to her. That’s really it. There is less than no story here, only an aggressive cavalcade of terrible songs performed by a who’s who of somewhat musical celebrities, all leading up to one last song where cats declare that they are not dogs. That’s the entire movie. Yes, there is a subplot about Idris Elba’s disconcertingly penisless Macavity magically whisking all eligible cats to an abandoned barge in order to improve his own chances, but the stakes here are non-existent since Jellicle cats are magical beings that can pretty much do whatever they want. But really, that’s it. Cats is one giant montage of garbage musical numbers that eventually stop happening when the movie ends. I should add that most of the lyrics are impossible to decipher since the audio is presented in such a “wall-of-sound” style that everything ends up garbles. No matter, I can’t imagine that any of these nauseating man-beasts could possibly be saying anything worth listening to. 

I mention Macavity’s lack of a penis partially because I’m hilarious and partially because when it comes to humanoid cats, many of which wiggle their human breasts for the sake of titillation, it somehow doubles down on the anatomical weirdness of what’s going on. These people don’t look like cats. These cats don’t look like people. And even if the design weren’t so inherently nightmarish, the rendering is of such low-quality one gets the sense that the filmmakers realized this whole project was a terrible idea, but were far enough along in production that the only way out was through. If only they were savvy enough to realize that the ONLY way Cats would be worth watching is if they leaned into the weirdness as hard as possible. Granted, Cats is indeed weird as hell (which I understand is on brand), but the novelty of the weirdness wears off pretty quickly. It wasn’t twenty minutes before the weirdness, now cranked to eleven, was so intense that any further madness became hard to notice. Were Cats aware of or interested in its own potential for camp, it could have been transcendent, or at least bonkers enough not to be boring, but since it views itself as high art, it ends up vacillating between uncomfortably weird and powerfully boring, which lands the film squarely at “exhausting.” I’m not saying that the production should’ve fashioned human genitals for all of the cats (I’m odd, but not sick). What I’m saying is, if the theoretical addition of a human penis onto a giant cat-man could be seen as a way to make things feel less gross, you’re operating in dangerous territory. 

I could go on to talk about the performances from such cast members as Dame Judi Dench, Taylor Swift, Jason Derulo, Rebel Wilson, and Sir Ian McKellen, but why waste time saying how each and every one of them should be embarrassed for having anything to do with this pile of crap? James Corden, on the other hand, lives an embarrassing existence anyway, so he should feel right at home in a movie that shares identical descriptors to his very being: boring, gross, and hard to look at without cringing. 

I would like to note that Jennifer Hudson gives a great rendition of Memory, but she’s literally dripping boogers down her face for the entire movie. Kinda hampers things. 

Watching Cats, as I said before, one gets the sense that at some point during production it may have started to gel that what everyone was working on was not a movie, but a sin against humanity, yet all involved parties were too far down the road to pull out. As such, they just tied off the loose ends, slapped a credits sequence on it, and scheduled it to open against a Star Wars in the hopes that it would be forgotten. Unfortunately for them, Cats is completely unforgettable, but if the gods are good, maybe one day I’ll be able to scrape its rancid essence from my memory entirely. 

Released nationwide December 20, 2019. Don’t.

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About the author

Dan Scully

Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn't really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.