Cats is an abomination. I loved every second of it.
Note: this review originally ran on Set the Tape (link).
When something as utterly and transcendentally bizarre as Academy Award winner Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Cats comes along, there can be a tendency amongst certain connoisseurs of the “so bad, it’s good” kind to attempt to cop out of actual critical analysis usually via the invocation of a sentiment along the lines of “it transcends antiquated notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad.’” Usually, that is rather much an evasive manoeuvre which does you, the reader, no favours in deciding if spending money on said film is a wise investment and is rather condescending to the films themselves since, even when the ironic entertainment value is the main reason for sitting through them, it implies that appalling filmmaking is just allowed to be given a free pass so long as it is the right kind of appalling.
To that end, allow me to redress the scales somewhat by telling you this upfront: Cats is an abomination. The worst Andrew Lloyd Webber musical (and that’s really saying something) receives an adaptation by one of the worst directors to ever win a Best Director Oscar and the result is one of the worst movie musicals ever made by a major Hollywood studio. A giant middle-finger to the entire concept of musicals and the medium of movie musicals seemingly genetically-engineered to kill off both for good. The performers are often actively embarrassed to be here which smothers the potential for camp. The choreography is incoherent because, despite hiring Andy Blankenbuehler of Hamilton fame, Academy Award winner Hooper is incapable of dealing with scale of any kind so his direction of said numbers alternates between flat long-take close-ups or rapidly-cut needlessly off-kilter medium shots that are impossible to see.
The songs are uniformly awful, all but two having the exact same melody as each other – which is what happens when you base your music entirely around a series of poems all written at the same time by the same guy (T. S. Eliot) in the same iambic pentameter – and all of them dragging on for literal Ages because of Webber’s propensity for running choruses with no variation into the ground. It looks horribly cheap with literally unfinished special effects everywhere at my screening; the uncanny valley-residing CGI is obviously a problem, but also the colour palette is ugly, dim and drab for no discernible reason. It has no point, no theme, no narrative although there has been the rough outline of a plot grafted on which only serves to raise more questions. Its tone is a mess, its intentional jokes are not funny whilst the emotional beats are cynical and forced. It refuses to end. Cats is, on a critical level, one of the worst films of the year if not the decade. An absolute career-killing (with any luck) fiasco of the kind our modern studio system was supposed to have stamped out. Buyer beware.
It’s also one of my cinematic highlights of the year. I mean, fuck, man, have you sat through 2019 cinema?! The medium of Film hasn’t so much staggered to the finish-line of this decade as it has limped in futility after having both its arms and one of its legs blown off. This has been a miserable year for the movies, where entertainment of any level of intentionality or sincerity has frequently come second to bilking viewers of their hard-earned cash and time. The properly good movies were mostly just “fine,” the properly bad movies were almost exclusively “boring.” Most of the time I left the cinema this year not having been moved much of the way in either direction. And isn’t that what cinema is supposed to do? To move us to some degree? To inspire even the slightest passion?
My first barely-restrained laughing fit at Cats occurred halfway through the opening number and did not subside for basically the entire 110-minute runtime. Every time I thought I’d been able to compose myself, something new would come along to break my brain just a little bit more and I’d futilely attempt to suppress another maniacal laughing fit. I highly doubt the general audience sat around me – most of whom were Olds who actually liked both Cats the musical and Cats this movie as I could overhear through conversation on the way out – appreciated my ever-present hysterics, but I genuinely was having a whale of a time at this thing. I mean, fuck, a reaction of enjoyment is a reaction of enjoyment, y’know? And after this garbage, miserable, resigned-shrug of a year, I will take such a reaction regardless of intent wherever I can get it.
So, yeah, Cats is honestly kind of above/below your standard critical evaluation, although this opening spiel is meant to stand in for one in an effort to, as mentioned, redress the scale somewhat. What I think would be more helpful for you, dear reader who wishes to make an informed consumerist choice, is if I instead spent the next 1,000-ish words just listing off a selection of things which actually happen in the movie Cats, an adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical based on poems by T. S. Eliot, directed and co-written by Academy Award winner Tom Hooper.
Academy Award nominee Sir Ian McKellen licks his face with his hand and says, without irony or shame, “meow meow meow.”
Academy Award winner Dame Judi Dench at one point presents herself. As in, like how a cat presents itself, with her laid sideways on a cat bed and her CGI leg stuck high up in the air to display her cat crotch to the camera.
Rebel Wilson is introduced in the movie licking her armpit with great gusto. Later on in her musical number, and despite all of these characters being anthropomorphic CGI-aided cats rather than human beings dressed up to look like cats as on Broadway, she unzips her fur to reveal a full-body sequined pink leather catsuit underneath.
During said number, we are introduced to a series of mice and cockroaches as dancing extras. These creatures walk on two legs, have human hands and feet just like the cats featured in Academy Award winner Tom Hooper’s Cats, and the terrifying faces of small children. Rebel Wilson eats many of these extras on-screen during the song.
People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive 2018 Idris Elba, who plays the evil magic-capable criminal cat Macavity, whisks away himself and the cats he kidnaps with a sped-up high-pitched yelling of, alternatingly, “MACAVITY!” or “MEOW!” Every single time he does so, it is the funniest thing in the entire world.
Jason Derulo, who plays a character called Rum Tum Tugger, for some inexplicable reason performs all of his lines in an unconvincing Cock-er-ney accent.
On a similar note, Grammy Award winner Taylor Swift also, for some inexplicable reason, performs all of her lines in an unconvincing junior school drama class Cock-eney accent. Her song involves her drugging an entire room full of cats with catnip and takes the form of a genre break into a rejected Bugsy Malone number.
During Jason Derulo’s big musical number, there is an extremely long pause where he almost sucks off the toes of Francesca Haywood before Rebel Wilson ad libs for him to get back on with it. You may assume that I am deliberately attempting to misread this scene. I can assure you that is far from the truth. This is the energy that Derulo, Haywood, Academy Award winner Hooper and cinematographer Christopher Ross put out there of their own accord.
There are innumerable instances where various human-cats do that face/whole-body rub thing to each other that cat-cats do and, every single time, it looks like everyone involved is three seconds away from a great on-screen orgy. This is the horniest U-rated movie I have ever seen, a rating I guess it only got because there’s no blood and you can’t prove any of it was sex. I worry I’ve been automatically placed on some government registry thanks to this.
Going back to Jason Derulo’s big number, at one point he yells out an elongated “MIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIILK!!!” before drenching a bunch of cats in milk who all let out cries of sexual ecstasy.
Not once, not twice, but three times during this movie do members of the cast get crotched on something and respond to it like a human would despite the fact that they are supposed to be cats. I’m not a hundred percent certain that Academy Award winner Tom Hooper has ever spent time around a cat before.
BAFTA Award nominated Ray Winstone, one of Britain’s most acclaimed and talented actors, plays the now on-screen role of Growltiger and you can tell in his demeanour and eyes that he’s spending his entire time on-set mentally debating whether a jury would convict him for murdering his agent over booking him in this.
Multiple times during my screening, which was supposedly the improved version (because we’re apparently now in the business of patching movies as well), I noticed simply unfinished visual effects. Legs clipped through the floor on green-screened sets, faces subtly shifted out of place briefly on characters’ bodies, actual rendering errors during big fanciful CGI swoop-pans. This was most egregious during the Bustopher Jones number when BAFTA and Emmy Award winner James Corden dives into a bin for a spell and, as the bin rolls down a slope, his entire person is replaced by a CGI monstrosity of ever-changing size.
Brand new number “Beautiful Ghosts” (not good) and the showstopper “Memory” (meh) are both shot in stilted long-take close-ups a la Hooper’s woeful Les Mis from a few years back. That itself is not very notable, but he’s doing so with barely-finished visual effects which stare just off-centre of the camera lens for a full uncanny valley dive, and “Memory” has Academy Award winner Jennifer Hudson over-emoting to such a comically overwrought degree it’s like Academy Award winner Hooper is stood off-camera screaming “MORE EMOTION, MORE SNOT!”
The ending of “Mr. Mistoffelees,” which rivals “Hey Jude” for most unchanging chorus repetitions except with just the ugliest vocal melody, went on for so long that words ceased to mean anything come the time it mercifully stopped.
Repeatedly across the film, there are bouts of aggressive, intense dancing despite the score backing them being subdued to such a degree that they function as the best Footloose parodies to come along in a good decade.
Humans exist in the world of Cats, as evidenced by the brief appearance of somebody dumping Victoria in an alley somewhere at the movie’s start, and human-cats appear to be about two-thirds the size of humans except when human-cats are barely the size of a mouse-mouse (unlike the human-mice which populate this film). Scale is not something that Academy Award winner Tom Hooper shows much consistency or control of.
At one point, we are threatened with the arrival of a dog. Given the human-mice and human-cockroach abominations displayed before then, I was really excited to see what dogs look like in the Cats universe but our protagonists manage to shut the door before the dog can enter. Cowards.
Eventually, after spending the rest of the movie wearing clothes – many of which are fur, a trait shared by a lot of other cast members for reasons unclear – People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive 2018 Idris Elba performs naked. The results are terrifying, like if a Ken doll were rendered by the same CGI that brought forth the Scorpion King from The Mummy Returns minus the abs, and also hysterical, for the exact same reason.
There is a cat with a handlebar moustache, high-waisted trousers, and suspenders. For some reason only known to my madness, since there were plenty more baffling things before his appearance and plenty more baffling things after his appearance, the mere sight of this broke me and I spent his entire musical number almost on the floor gasping for air.
At the movie’s end, Academy Award winner Judi Dench breaks the fourth-wall to very-stiltedly monologue to the audience for upwards of three minutes. At one point, you can witness the light die in her eyes and feel your own soul leave your body as she is forced to draw out “a cat… is not… a dog.”
Like I said, this movie is an abomination. A ghastly travesty of misbegotten creative decisions, based upon rotten foundations to begin with, from which not a single soul escapes unscathed, including the audience. It has no respect for musicals, for movie musicals, for movies period, for visual effects, for the entire cat species. I loved every second of it.
Callie Petch has gone MAAAAAAAAAAD, isn’t that so sad?