CATS

I love musicals. The choreography, the singing, the songs, the theatricality of it all. It’s one of those genres that completely transports you to another place, because who really breaks out into clearly rehearsed song and dance? That’s the whole point, but musicals are still stories and should have something to be invested in. When it comes to musical theater, it’s a different story. You can skate by with your costumes, songs, and dancing, because it’s more of an experience. However, when you translate those musicals onto film, it becomes a whole different matter entirely. 
 
White cat Victoria (Francesca Hayward) is abandoned by her owner in an alleyway. A society of anthropomorphic Cats known as Jellicles take her in and introduce themselves through song and dance. The Jellicles all compete at the Jellicle Ball, where they vie for Old Deuteronomy’s (Judi Dench) attention, who has the power to send them to The Heavyside Layer to live another life. 
 
Cats was basically the Star Wars of musical theater. Nobody had seen anything like it before. The costumes, the makeup, the choreography, the actors. It pretty much revolutionized the medium and became one of the highest grossing and longest running musicals of all time. What it wasn’t really known for was its story. There isn’t much of a story, and especially no plot, structure, or decent characterization. It’s literally nothing but cats singing about themselves without much of a narrative throughline. It was more about the experience and definitely nobody thought it would ever be adapted to screen. As successful as Cats was, it became somewhat of a joke to more serious theater fans, and was always known as that weird, bizarre musical. Well, Universal and Les Misérables director Tom Hooper for some reason thought it would be a good idea to bring this to the big screen, and it turned out to be one of the worst ideas ever. 
 
Like, I said, there’s really no narrative to Cats, so for the movie to work, you either need to expand on the source material, or make sure the film works on an aesthetic level. Neither works here. The film starts off with the Jellicles singing about themselves, then one cat introduces themself through song, then another cat does the same, then another. All of the songs are like 5 minutes long and the only sort of character development are the cats explaining their personalities and what they do. That’s it. To be completely honest, I was a little bit on board with this for the first five minutes, because I enjoyed the weirdness and the opening song, but it quickly becomes tedious after that. The compositions and lyrics are catchy, as well as well performed, but it’s hard to care when it’s song after song without absolutely nothing else going on. I didn’t care about who got the Heavyside Layer and when the eventual decision is made, I felt absolutely no emotion. It’s probably because the movie broke me by that point and I was basically catatonic. When Old Deuteronomy arrives, all of the cats fawn and meow over her sheer grace and power. It then breaks out into an all out orgy basically, with cats lurching and rolling around on the ground as the music and the cat’s sounds get louder and louder. The camera spins around with this cacophony of music and garish aesthetic challenging your brain to process it all. It felt like I was watching the Suspiria remake, but a million times more insane. 
 
While there’s no story or characters, Cats may have worked if it wasn’t so unsettling to look at. The cats are all CGI with the faces of the actors tracked on and it’s really disconcerting and unnatural looking. It’s totally in the uncanny (uncatty?) valley territory, where everything just looks… off. It’s been a big news story lately with Universal sending out a new version of Cats with improved visual effects and I had the privilege of watching the pre-patched version. The effects are hilariously unfinished, with the faces poorly tracked on the cat’s bodies, collars floating around their necks, feet clipping through the floor, and much more. The most egregious example of this is the magician cat Mr. Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson), who wears a classic magician’s top hat. When he puts on the hat, his ears just go through the hat. They don’t flop out or anything. Just clip through the hat. Tom Hooper said he was still working on finishing the film two days before the premiere and it shows. He clearly didn’t have the time, budget, nor resources to make this work. They should have just put them in cat costumes, but perhaps that would have hampered the actor’s and dancer’s movements. Not like it really mattered, as you can’t see any of the choreography anyway. Hooper clearly doesn’t know how to direct a musical, because everything is either so close-up or the editing so frenetic with constant cutting around, you can’t see any of the dancing. I bet it was great dancing too, as it was choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, famous for Hamilton, behind this, but his efforts are clearly wasted. 
 
Just like the choreographer, this is stacked with a very talented cast, who I’m sure are all completely regretting their decision to star in this nonsense. We have some truly talented people here, such as Judi Dench, Idris Elba, Ian McKellen, Jennifer Hudson, and more. They all certainly try, but again, there’s just nothing to any of these characters. It’s just a bunch of cat people singing and dancing around. The whole point of the movie is performing for Old Deuteronomy, but hardly anybody performs for her and she’s immediately like, “Yep. This is the one,” after only like two or three performances. The only sort of conflict is with Macavity (Idris Elba), a malevolent cat with magical powers. Believing he should be the one to ascend to the Heavyside Layer, he kidnaps other cats (thankfully, the James Corden and Rebel Wilson ones) and holds them hostage. It is the absolute thinnest plot thread imaginable and the way it resolves feels so haphazardly conceived. If it wasn’t so unsettling, this would basically be made for 6-year-olds. At least Elba provides us with the most entertainment, as he clearly knew what movie he was in and totally hammed it up. Him exclaiming “Meow!” when he vanishes after an evil speech is trash movie goodness. Other than him, this is nothing more than the blackest possible mark that will go on any of these star’s resumes. I especially feel bad for Francesca Hayward, who is clearly a talented dancer and singer, but I don’t see her screen career taking off after her debut here. Sad too, as it’s not her fault. 
 
Cats is one of those rare, once in a decade movies that is a complete cinematic misfire on every level. Absolutely nothing works here. The story, the characters, the choreography, the effects, the entire aesthetic. It’s destined to be a cult classic like Battlefield EarthBirdemic: Shock and Terror, and The Room where you can’t help but marvel at the sheer awfulness of it. This isn’t some faux-bad movie like Sharknado, where it’s intentionally made to be terrible, but this is something where you can tell everybody put their heart and soul into. They thought they were making something magical and that just makes it all the more embarrassing. However, if you put it on with some friends and knock back a couple drinks, it should be a grand old time. Cats is a cinematic experience unlike any other, but not all experiences are good. Sometimes, they’re just downright unpleasent.
 
1.5/10 

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