Okay, How Freaking Weird Is ‘Cats’?
By some definitions, this article contains some minor SPOILERS for Cats. But seeing as how I could not explain the specifics of the movie if my actual life depended on it, we’re talking seriously minor spoilers. Can you spoil something you do not understand on any level?
I’m trying to summon a description of the cats in Cats that does justice to even a fraction of their unholy, dredged-from-the-uncanny-valley horror. They look like designs for the villains of one of the live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies that got rejected for being too unsettling. They look like someone took an enormous amount of psychedelic drugs and then tried to craft a gritty reboot of the Cats Broadway show. They look like what I imagine the characters in all Hollywood blockbusters looked like if a furry was put in charge of the film industry.
However you want to describe their fuzzy tummies, large foreheads, unnatural human faces, and smooth doll-like nether regions, these cats are weird — and very much of a piece with the rest of Tom Hooper’s Cats, which has finally made the leap to the big screen about 35 years after the heights of its popularity on the Great White Way. On stage, Cats was wildly successful, and became the longest-running show in Broadway history for a time. For all I know, Cats will be equally well-received in movie theaters. That will not change the fact that it is one of the strangest motion pictures from a major studio I have ever seen.
The oddities begin from the first few moments when Cats begins with a glorious celebration of “jellicle cats” who are ... uh ... well, they’re these cats, I guess. Although the entire movie is about these jellicle cats, no one onscreen ever explains precisely what that is, or why once a year they gather at the “jellicle ball” where one of their number is chosen to be sent to heaven and resurrected in a curious spin on the concept of cats having nine lives. I’m aware the concept of jellicle cats comes right from Andrew Lloyd Webber musical and the T.S. Eliot poems that inspired it. But “concept” might be generous; it’s just a nonsense word that’s sung approximately 3,000 times over the course of Cats 110-minute runtime.
If you’re not familiar with the Cats musical or Eliot’s poetry — and more importantly, in love with them already — good luck with the Cats movie. It gives no quarter to jellicle newbies and jellicle skeptics, instead diving fully into the world of the show, which contains no human characters and very little spoken dialogue. Instead the “story” is entirely sung, by a series of different cats all essentially auditioning for the role of the annual cat who gets to go to heaven and be reborn. The candidates include Rum Tum Tugger, played with pop-star swagger by Jason Derulo, Bustopher Jones (James Corden), who sings about food and at one point falls and hurts his crotch in Cats’ closest approximation of a human joke, and Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson), who performs her musical number with backup mice and cockroaches. All of their antics are observed by jellicle newcomer Victoria (Francesca Hayward), and the relative merits of their jellicleness is measured by Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench), who will make the ultimate choice of which cat gets a new life.
As if a literal catfight for the right of reincarnation wasn’t bizarre enough, there’s also an inexplicable antagonist in the form of Idris Elba’s Macavity. Like any sensicle jellicle, Macavity wants to be reborn as well, and so to increase his chances of being chosen, he kidnaps his biggest competition. Oh and also he can teleport. Literally, Idris Elba will screech “Meow!” and Macavity and his captives will vanish in a puff of smoke and emerge on a barge on the Thames. If you are already a talking, dancing cat with washboard abs who looks like Idris Elba and can actually teleport, why would you want to be reborn? How much better can life get than that? It feels like a risky roll of the dice to me.
The one actor who emerges from this cavalcade of horrors unscathed is Ian McKellen who shows up to sing his one song, “Gus the Theatre Cat,” and suddenly transforms the film into a genuinely moving piece about getting older. McKellen’s performance is so sincere and emotional it puts the rest of the movie to shame. And then Idris Elba magically teleports in and kidnaps him and Taylor Swift shows up as a “sexy” cat and dusts the rest of the cast with catnip. The cinema, ladies and jellicles!
If the CGI (which, as we know, stands for Cat Generated Images) was more convincing, or if they had just used makeup and costumes like the Cats Broadway show did, maybe there would have been a way to make this all feel less like a fever dream. But McKellen and Dench aside, the digital effects are consistently off-putting; it seems like every time the cats move whatever trickery is merging the human faces to the “digital fur technology” falls apart, which is kind of a problem for a movie like Cats, where the characters never stop moving and dancing.
Give the movie Cats this much: Everyone here is 100 percent committed to the bit. No one looks embarrassed to be in their ridiculous CGI cat costumes. On the contrary, everyone seems like a pig (cat?) in s— slinking around the alleys and apartments of the film’s oversized London set, whimsically lapping at bowls of milk or, in one particularly wacky moment, using a hairball as a projectile weapon. No one can be accused of phoning it in.
As he did in his movie version of Les Miserables, Hooper loves to shove the camera right up in his actors’ faces, which makes the cat faces’ cursed Photoshop qualities even harder to ignore. Cats still has some lovely songs; it will surprise no one that Jennifer Hudson can belt the hell out of the show-stopping “Memory.” Still, what a surreal way to deliver a soaring ballad about loneliness and times past! It is apt, I guess. This Cats will live on in every viewer’s memory, all alone in the moonlight, now and forever. Its weirdness is unforgettable.
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