Sorry, everybody. CATS was my idea. It was already a record-breaking Broadway musical slated for cinematic adaptation from LES MISERABLES director Tom Hooper, but I was the one who suggested they ditch the traditional makeup and do the cats as hideous mocap animal-human hybrids on oversized sets. In my defense I was picturing more of a RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES type of design where the faces have cat-like structure to them. I didn’t know it was gonna be human faces on furry Barbie doll bodies, which is a different type of creepy than I imagined.
I feel bad that this whole fiasco has caused all kinds of speculation about Hooper being a bad director. I personally didn’t much care for his best picture winning THE KING’S SPEECH, especially after it dissipated from the public consciousness before I could make THE KING’S PEACH to kick off a prestige version of Asylum mockbusters. But I truly was won over by THE MISERABLES. I’m not a fan of the Broadway aesthetic at all, not even Rappin’ Hamilton, and I saw that movie reluctantly for best picture nominee completist purposes only, so I was shocked when I totally loved it. Some of that is due to good choices on Hooper’s part, such as insisting on recording all the singing live and doing Anne Hathaway’s emotional song in one shot in closeup in a coffin, but also I was unfamiliar with it, I was experiencing that story for the first time, and it’s a good one. Way to go, Victor Hugo. You nailed that one. Les congratz.
CATS – which, like LES MIZ, I knew only through the medium of black t-shirts worn by the drama club girls when I was young – arguably has neither of those things going for it. It definitely doesn’t have the strong story (the negligible plot here is apparently more than what the musical had), and Hooper’s choices can only be considered good in the sense that his WTF design philosophy might’ve been the only way (short of weird puppets) to make this thing sort of entertaining for non-initiates like me.
Plot summary: There’s this one cat named Victoria (English ballet dancer Francesca Hayward) who gets surrounded by other cats (various) in an alley and they ask her if she is a “Jellicle” and then sing a song describing what a Jellicle is and then other songs listing some of the different cats that they know. One is an old lady cat named Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench, THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK), who at midnight at the Jellicle Ball will pick one Jellicle Choice to send to a new life in heaven or another dimension or something called (at least according to Wikipedia) “the Heaviside Layer.” But a cat named Macavity (Idris Elba, PROM NIGHT) is trying to become the Jellicle Choice and the others don’t want him to because he’s an asshole – not so much like GARFIELD THE ASSHOLE CAT, but more like a gritty reboot of Top Cat. Also there’s an underprivileged cat named Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson, THE THREE STOOGES) who comes out and sings a sad song about being a miserable, so Victoria is all “hey Old Deuteronomy you should choose this sad cat for the Jellicle thing” and Old Deuteronomy is like “oh yeah I like your thinking there” and that’s what happens, the end… after a couple encore songs including one where Deuteronomy looks directly at the camera and sings us a little instructional video about the proper etiquette for addressing cats.
According to published sources, the CATS phenomenon started with T.S. Eliot’s 1939 poetry collection Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. In 1981 Andrew Lloyd Webber, having already had smash successes like Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, adapted this talented opossum’s rhymes into a stage musical in the West End and then on Broadway. It won the Olivier and Tony awards for Best Musical and ran for 21 years in London and 18 in New York, not including its later revivals. There were also long running versions in Germany and Japan, and all together it’s made over $3.5 billion worldwide.
I suspect you had to be there. There must’ve been a thrill to the experience of live music and dance that doesn’t translate to this cinematic slog through various lists of weird cat names and facts. There’s a cat named Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo, soon to play Ron Isley in a biopic of producer Neil Bogart) who sings about how awesome he is. There’s a cat named Bustopher Jones (James Corden, OCEAN’S 8) who sings about how fat he is. There’s a cat named Mr. Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson, “Party Host” [uncredited], VAMPIRE ACADEMY) who is a magician and wears a top hat and throws cards around and sings about how excited he is to do a magic trick that he then fails at and then is sad. There are cats named Munkustrap, Skimbleshanks, Bananabunnybumblebippy, Mungojerrie, Rumpleteazer, Growltiger, Jellylorum, and Shiggyshickle Sneeblebonker, and only two of those were made up by me.
I don’t know if this is an indictment of the movie or of me, but it felt like most of it was cats straight up explaining in detail what a Jellicle is, but at the end I still had no idea what a Jellicle is. I did catch that they are usually cats with black and white fur, which I think only fits two or three of the characters, plus one I can think of from another movie.
It’s also not clear to me what sort of world these cats exist in. I lean toward it being a stylized version of our world, as opposed to a CARS with cats instead of cars instead of people. The city is built at human scale, not cat scale, and there are mice and one dog (off screen), and one part at the beginning has a human in a car (face not shown). But the rest of the time there is no evidence of human life, and there is a “milk bar” and a billboard for milk, as if they live in Kitty City. If there was a song that explained it I must not have understood.
The actor who seems to be having the most fun is Rebel Wilson (“Girl in Alley,” GHOST RIDER) as “a Gumbie cat” (maybe synonymous with house cat?) named Jennyanydots. During her number she does maybe the two most bizarre things in the movie:
1. Snatches and eats tiny human-faced cockroaches doing an upside down march on the bottom of a table
2. Sings into what appears to be her plush tail like it’s a microphone but the animators didn’t notice and still animated a separate tail on her
I would say there’s a third one when she unzips and removes her fur to reveal another layer of fur underneath that’s wearing a dress, but it’s actually much stranger later in the movie when she uses that established ability to escape from bondage.
Taylor Swift (VALENTINE’S DAY) also seems to have a good time playing Bombalurina, a vampy sidekick to Macavity who’s lowered down on a trapeze to sing lustily and spill catnip glitter that gets all the other cats blitzed out of their minds. She’s shaking her furry mounds around, and there’s a little bit of that weird porcupine-lady-in-NIGHTBREED type of feeling that the filmmakers are saying “You know you’re horny for this” and I’m thinking “Truly, sincerely, I am not in any way horny for this, cross my heart and hope to die.” Also, these cats are very naked and always rolling around with their legs spread, so there’s plenty of opportunity to note that there are no holes or bulges for that.
Incidentally, I bet if they’d gotten this into production a little earlier they could’ve caught Kanye West during his furry-curious period, before he moved on to the Republican/televangelist phase, and maybe got him involved in the music. Although Swift co-wrote a new song for (quickly abandoned) Oscar purposes, the music does not seem modernized in any way, and I sort of dug the straight up TRON sounding synth sounds. They’re not retro in the way that’s considered cool right now, but in the way where it’s shocking that they didn’t feel it was necessary to update. Which I can respect.
One thing they did feel the need to update: the FX. After it was already released. They were so close to the wire there are obvious mistakes. Supposedly the way you tell the difference between 2.0 and original release (seen by me) is that the latter clearly shows Dench’s regular fur-less hand, with wedding ring, during her song at the end. That didn’t look that out of place to me but there are things that are unusually screwy for a big budget release like this. I kept staring at their weirdly floating collars and their feet, which sometimes looked like they were going through or floating above the street. A few of the cats wear shoes, but most have bare human feet with toes that don’t seem to properly react to the ground. Also, Mr. Mistoffelees keeps taking on and off a hat and his ears somehow poke through it even though there are no holes for that. And the approach to their faces is weird. From a distance it looks like they have a layer of fuzz, but in closeup it looks like greasepaint in the middle with fur surrounding it.
Though it doesn’t seem to have gone over well, it was a bold choice to have humans moving sort of like animals digitally altered to look sort of like animals. One thing they did not do that I think could’ve taken it to the next level (or layer) is to have the cats encounter a realistic-ish CGI human model performed by an actual cat in a mocap suit. Maybe the cat’s real face surrounded by human skin and hair and with eyebrows painted on. The hindlegs of the actor-cat control the legs and the front legs control the arms and this way the interspecies portrayal can go both ways. Maybe if they keep issuing updates they could add that in there.
It also seems like a missed opportunity not to release this in face-tickling 3D and butt whacking Fur-DX, as the trailers had me assuming they would. These cats are constantly leaping or swinging toward the camera, throwing playing cards toward it, big time 3D moneyshots. Since there’s also lots of bumpy handheld footage, my speculation is that Hooper intended a post-conversion but didn’t properly plan for, it so they told him to fur-get it.
When I saw CATS the Sunday after it opened I experienced something I never have before, though reportedly it was happening all over the place: it was a decent sized crowd clearly made up mostly of people who wanted to laugh at it. I feel bad for the disturbance this must be causing for any sincere Webbermaniacs, or the confusion to the young Taylor Swift fans who came with their mother, but that crowd did make the experience more fun for me. The laughter started immediately, but continued throughout, especially any time the human-cats nuzzled each other. Idris Elba got the two biggest reactions: one when he disappeared into a puff of smoke while making a weird yelpy “meow,” another when he did his music number minus the big fur coat and fedora he’s been wearing so now he just looks like a naked Idris Elba covered in fur.
I’ve also seen a tiny bit of grumbling that people shouldn’t make fun of a movie, or go see it for irony. I get that. But I see nothing wrong with celebrating oddity. Whether it was the artists behind it or the money people who financed it, somebody clearly misjudged how many people would be able to hang with a movie about this, looking like this. Misjudgments on this scale are rare, otherwise this wouldn’t be so fascinating. And if Universal is going to lose an estimated $71 million-$100 million on it I’m sure they’d agree that somebody might as well get something out of it. This might be the most befuddling movie I’ve seen since FOODFIGHT!, though that was way, way worse and had to be watched in small chunks spread out over a month or more.
But now I want to say a few positive things about CATS. First of all, it’s kind of nice that the cats are always trying to support each other by singing each other’s song. Like the magic guy sings a song about how great he is at magic even though he actually totally sucks at magic and then he feels bad that he totally sucks at magic so the others sing the song about how great he is at magic to make him feel better. And you know that famous song “Memories”? It’s sung by the sad outcast cat and then later the main cat sees her and sings her song back to her and it’s an act of solidarity and showing that she listened to her.
The other thing is that I greatly respect Ian McKellen (THE KEEP, THE SHADOW), Judi Dench, and especially Jennifer Hudson for being as good as they are in a movie this ridiculous. To me they come off looking good because they come in and do their job and don’t hold back.
McKellen plays Gus the Theatre Cat, a sad old man cat who at one point pathetically licks milk or something out of pan. That’s weird, sure, but McKellen is so thoroughly lovable, of course he makes you feel for him. Dench I think does the best character singing – she’s not trying to be Whitney Houston, she’s portraying a personality through voice and still carrying a tune. And then Hudson, of course, shows off the full array of her pipes and techniques but she also acts the shit out of it, eyes full of tears, snot dripping in more than one scene. This may be self-incriminating but when she was letting it rip on
“Memories” “Memory” there was a point where I felt like I might be on the verge of tearing up, a release unearned by the film surrounding the scene, achieved only by her display of emotion and my awe at her fearless professionalism in the face of such ludicrousness. I caught myself and thought god damn it I can’t let CATS get a tear out of me!
But maybe I should’ve. There’s a thing I’ve noticed about certain people, especially in generations after mine – they don’t have as much shame and self-consciousness instilled in them as I do. I’m not talking about our modern government disavowing dignity in the service of evil, I’m talking about nerds who are wide open about cosplay and “shipping” and other harmless things that older generations would be more embarrassed about. They’ve taken the proud tradition of those drama kids in the t-shirts I mentioned much further. I don’t think I’ll ever relate to it but I think it’s good for them to not worry as much about looking like a jackass, even if it makes me cringe.
And though it may not have panned out for them – and though I don’t think the entertainment value of its craziness is sustained for the full running time – I think we should take inspiration from CATS’ example of shamelessness. I suspect somebody convinced everybody involved that a movie of a musical this famous was a sure thing, and they all told themselves “Well, I don’t really get it myself, but I guess it’s gonna be a big deal!” But maybe some of them just thought it would be fun to crawl around in a leotard and purr and sing weird songs and they didn’t give a shit what anybody would think about it. Either way, they blew over $70 million in corporate money doing it. They should get a medal.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.