‘Cats’ Is A Mesmerizing Descent into Madness

Photo by Universal Pictures – © 2019 Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

The beloved Andrew Lloyd Weber musical phenomenon Cats opened in 1982 at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway and has somehow remained there long enough to become the fourth-longest-running Broadway musical of all time. Based on a collection of T.S. Elliot poems, Cats is and always has been a plotless dance revue of people in skintight fur suits keeping up with painstaking choreography on the stage, coming down the aisles and brushing up against unsuspecting audience members. And if Tom Hooper’s heavily ridiculed film adaptation can teach us anything, it’s that maybe some things should remain on the stage. However, this is both a sublime and disastrous experience that defies ‘A+’ or ‘F’ ratings (it should really be both), and it’s one for the ages. So, bear with me as my mind trudges down the rabbit hole that is Cats.

Victoria (Francesca Hayward) is a young cat who is abandoned by her owners in an alleyway in 1940s London. The Jellicle Cats, a cult of homeless street cats, find her and take her under their wing. She is told that tonight Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) will choose one cat to die and go to kitty heaven (or, um… the Heaviside Layer) and be reborn into a new life. The movie follows a series of musical numbers where cats introduce themselves and tell the audience about their lives and essentially beg for death through song.

I’m an avid fan of musical theatre, and I usually love a musical film adaptation, even when they’re Rock of Ages quality. Cats is one of the worst musicals I’ve ever sat through on stage, and it can’t even be argued that this is just a bad adaptation. It’s exactly the same as the stage musical. Other than a few lines of expository dialogue and some shaved lyrics, nothing has been changed. I may detest this awful musical, but I do understand why some people like it. You can just go in, turn your brain off and enjoy the dance routines, even though there’s no plot and everyone is in crude Furry makeup, and you spend forever just to get to the signature song at the end of the second act. And it can’t be argued by anyone that Memory is one of the all-time great musical theatre songs. It’s one of the defining moments of theatre legends like Betty Buckley and Elaine Paige. But one of the central problems with Cats is that it’s basically a one-song musical. Nothing else is as unforgettable as Memory, regardless of how catchy that opening number is.

And this film is well over twenty years in the making, with lots of false starts and unrealized concepts before Tom Hooper’s version was finally greenlit, taking the original release date that belonged to a potential film version of Wicked, which is now indefinitely postponed. And Cats, the movie, is a cursed project that should have never happened, and no one should ever see. Cats broke me and left me utterly disoriented. But I’m kind of glad I saw it.

This film is an unprecedented monstrosity in the grandest possible way. It’s a surreal and dreamlike trainwreck. The character design, as I’m sure you already know, is the stuff of uncanny valley nightmare land. We have humans dancing around in motion-capture suits with digitally placed fur, ears, and tails. And the version I saw (apparently Universal Pictures is sending a reworked version with ‘improved’ CGI to theaters as I write this) had some truly terrible CGI. Ensemble cats with no faces, actors with bare hands and feet that had no fur, and some really bad sound mixing where the orchestration overpowers Jennifer Hudson’s voice during the climax of Memory.

I’ll forgive the fact that I basically saw an unfinished cut of the film because some of the creative choices that are fully realized are much worse. Rebel Wilson’s Jennyanydots is the cat who is in charge of the neighborhood cockroaches and mice, and she’ll eat them when they misbehave. The mice have human child faces, and voices and the cockroaches line up in a kind of Busby Berkeley dance number. They, too, have human faces and likenesses, and the term ‘nightmare fuel’ has been overused in descriptions of this film’s design, but this is truly horrifying. And good luck getting the image of Sir Ian McKellen drinking milk out of a dish out of your mind. You wonder if McKellen and Dench have seen the movie they’re in, or if they just dared each other to be in it, and this is part of some sort of prank.

For a musical that is 98% sung-through, there are surprisingly few memorable songs. Only one number here is unironically joyous from beginning to end, and it involves a tap-dancing cat chorus line on a railway track. You wonder if a train might come and hit all of them and send the audience home early. As I said, the opening number Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats is a total banger, and good luck getting it out of your head. Memory, even, doesn’t make us weep the way Tom Hooper wants us to, despite Jennifer Hudson really giving her all. She’s doing legitimately great work here, and she’s just trapped behind this unsightly CGI. Luckily, the already toxic reputation of this film will not follow her around for very long. Hudson is about to play Aretha Franklin in a biopic slated for next October.

Renowned ballerina Francesca Hayward makes her acting debut as Victoria, and even though the majority of her performance involves basically looking at whatever’s happening with the same awe-struck expression, she seems like she’s too talented for her career to end here and now. Laurie Davidson (who recently played a young Ian McKellen in The Good Liar) plays Mr. Mistoffelees, the magical cat. We follow him as well as Victoria throughout the film, and he’s also really trying to transcend this hopelessly creepy material. Both deserve better.

Swifties, beware! Taylor Swift appears in roughly ten minutes of this film, just like everyone else. Bombalurina is in cahoots with Macavity (Idris Elba), two cats seemingly enjoying a life of crime. Swift’s number is fun, but if you’ve seen her perform even once, you know she can do this kind of thing in her sleep. Idris Elba, however, has some semblance of a story arc that Macavity does not in the stage musical. On the stage, he’s just a naughty cat. Here, he’s a villain with magical abilities and wants to ruin everyone’s chance to go to the Heaviside Layer. He wears a jacket and a fedora for the majority of his scenes, but once he takes that jacket off, Macavity becomes truly disturbing to look at.

Swift and Jason Derulo feel like stunt casting, and yet both of their scenes are among the stronger numbers, and both have an energy lacking in other musical numbers. However, I hope James Corden never appears in a movie musical ever again. It feels like that part only went to Corden after being offered to Tituss Burgess, who decided against it because he has standards.

You might ask yourself if Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper is pulling some kind of real-life The Producers shenanigans here. Maybe he wants to collect some checks from this endeavor and never show his face in Hollywood again. But the amount of effort on display here suggests otherwise. Giant sets are built, so the actors appear cat-sized. They look more rodent-sized, but that’s the least of this movie’s problems. Hooper directs this without the jarring fisheye close-ups he directed Les Misérables with. However, he still insists his actors sing live on-set, which might work in the heightened-emotional world of Les Mis, but seems out of place in the fantastical horror world of Cats.

Despite everything wrong with Cats, and believe me, there is plenty, it’s some of the most fun I’ve had at the movies all year. This is all unabashedly bizarre and horrifying, and that’s part of its charm. I spent the majority of the film with a deer-in-the-headlights expression, jaw on the floor, growing increasingly uncomfortable because you have to run off to the restroom, but you just can’t because you don’t want to miss a single second, trying desperately to find a way to comprehend the atrocity unfolding before your very eyes.

I personally believe that the worst thing a movie can be is boring, and Cats never bored me for a second. This is the kind of thing that will be mentioned in books about the best bad movies ever made, and because of that, Cats is a mesmerizing disaster that deserves your attention. I’m hesitant to recommend it, because, well, it’s not good. And it is most definitely not for everyone, but I would eagerly watch it again, especially after a few martinis. If you know what you’re getting yourself into, you might enjoy this freak show as much as I did.

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