Cats and all the images you see in this review are owned by Universal Pictures
Directed by Tom Hooper
I know next to nothing about Cats the stage show or the TS Eliot book it’s based on. I know it ends with a sad song that earns the cat another life and I know the band Mungo Jerry took its name after a character in it, but other than I don’t have the first clue; not to the narrative, what the famous songs are, or why it’s so popular that a studio sunk a bajillion dollars into making good actors look like creatures from The Island of Dr. Moreau to bring it to the big screen. Yeah, those trailers weren’t doing this film a lot of favors as the odd cat suits were all anyone was talking about and it certainly wasn’t selling a newbie like me on the CATS experience. Still, even if the effects are strange there could be an engaging and heartfelt story beating underneath that’ll make up for all tht which if nothing else will explain why the stage show is still popular after all this time. Is this the cinematic dance party of 2019 that The Greatest Showman was for 2018, or will this sit right alongside Andrew Lloyd Webber’s other missteps like Love Never Dies and Gerard Butler? Let’s find out!!
The movie begins with Victoria (Francesca Hayward) being dumped in an alley by her human owner (a very disturbing sight by the way coupled with these shrunken cat humanoids) and she is greeted by the Jellicle Cats. What’s a Jellicle Cat? I have no idea, but I think it involves three years of ballet and two years of tap. The Jellicle Cats led by Munkustrap (Robbie Fairchild) take Victoria through the streets of London to meet other Jellicle Cats like Jennyanydots, Bustopher Jones, and Rum Tum Tugger (Rebel Wilson, James Cordon, and Jason Derulo), and eventually to the Jellicle Ball which is some sort of talent show where even MORE cats show up to strut their stuff in the hopes of winning a new life. I’m not sure if this is some reincarnation deal or if they get a tenth life tacked to the end of their ninth, but regardless there are a lot of cats trying to impress the leader of the Jellicle Cats, Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench), who is the one that will ultimately make the decision. Some cats like Gus and Skimbleshanks (Ian McKellen and Steven McRae) will simply try to do their best, while others like Macavity (Idris Elba) will use underhanded means to try and while, and others still like Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson) are excluded entirely, for… reasons. Will Victoria find a place among the Jellicle Cats now that she no longer has a home with the humans? Who will be chosen to receive the ultimate prize this night, and how far will Macavity go to try and secure it? Does anyone know if this is all one big joke? Who looked at those faces and thought, YUP! THAT’S WHAT WE WANT TO SPEND OUR MONEY ON!!
This is ABSOLUTELY gonna be someone’s favorite movie of all time, but it certainly wasn’t mine. Seriously, I don’t even know where to begin with this baffling nightmare trip to the uncanny valley; whether it’s the bad special effects, the bad costumes, an impregnable narrative (at least as far as pacing, scene to scene story progression, and character motivations), it all adds up to one of the most bizarre experiences I’ve had at a movie this year. To a certain extent I do want to give this credit for so fearlessly being the messy disaster that it is because say what you will about it, someone had a vision and they STUCK to it! I can’t imagine the studio suits being happy with the creepy costumes and ludicrous production design, yet Tom Hooper and everyone involved were clearly getting their way and were having a ball making it. Good for them I guess, but ultimately they had way more fun making it than I had with the finished product.
We might as well not dance around the issue (nyuk-nyuk-nyuk) and get to the giant terrifying elephant in the room. The cat costumes are ASTOUNDINGLY bad and they never look any more convincing as the movie goes on. In fact, the trailers actually undersold just how bad they are because seeing them up close on the big screen for extended periods of time only highlights how bad every piece of it is; not to mention how off-putting a lot of the of the ideas are irrespective of the quality of the CG. Who could have looked at those children in rat costumes and thought that was a good idea? What about the cockroaches with smiling lady faces on them straight out of a David Lynch film!? Idris Elba as a cat with six pack abs? I mean I don’t expect the guy to lose his physique for the role, but BOY was seeing human muscles on a cat body the weirdest thing imaginable! Also, and I don’t know if anyone else noticed this, all of the collars and chains around the cats’ necks looked like they were floating around like an Instagram filter instead of real objects the actors were wearing! I don’t know why I fixated on that and I could be wrong about whether or not those accessories were actually there or added after the fact, but it really is a good summary of the film’s aesthetic; way too much is happening and all of it is really distracting.
MAYBE I could have looked past all of those odd aesthetic decisions if the narrative was in any way gripping or emotionally charged, but I just found the narrative completely impenetrable as someone experiencing this for the first time. Most of this movie is song and dance numbers with practically no dialogue which means we have to gleam the story from the show tunes themselves, and not only did I have trouble understanding what they were saying (I couldn’t tell you if it the mixing is bad or if I’m just terrible at hearing song lyrics), it was all so densely layered in metaphor and word play that trying to gather the finer points of the story from them was like trying to read a book where every other page is a mad libs. What is a Jellicle Cat and why do they keep saying it over and over again? Why does Idris Elba have teleportation powers!? WHY IS ANY OF THIS HAPPENING!?
At this point I just HAD to know; is this ANYTHING like the stage show!? So what I did was I found a recording of it, watched from beginning to end, and you know what? The show actually works. I’m sure that’s not a huge surprise to theater fans out there as film adaptations have been… let’s say a MIXED bag, but it’s very clear to me now that the movie is NOT the way you should experience this for the first time. It’s actually kind of amazing just how much they managed to bungle this in the process of translating it from stage to film and is one of the better examples of WHY some things work better in its original staged format. If you line them up side to side, they’re almost the same; all the way down to the order of the musical numbers and very nearly the running time. What’s different though (aside from the awful new aesthetic compared to the rather interesting one used by the show) is the context of the events that we are seeing. What works about Cats on stage is that you are viewing it as an outsider; as a guest to the inner workings of this community on a very special day. Because of this context where we are coming into their lives, it makes sense that we don’t fully grasp their customs right away as the musical numbers do a decent job of giving us enough information to enjoy what’s going on. Why are we flipping between cat after cat after cat singing about their lives? Because that’s what they do on this day and we’re lucky enough to be privy to it. A movie though has an entirely different context where we’re not a part of the story itself as observers, so the film has to come up with a narrative for the events to hang on and it just doesn’t work. Victoria is the POV character (upgraded from basically a nothing character in the show), but to what end? She doesn’t have a role in the story itself, nor does she have anything resembling an arc since again; her role is to be the POV for the audience and the numbers we have to go through aren’t conducive to forwarding any sort of plot. All of the new stuff they’ve add to give this SOME sort of narrative structure is uniformly awful; particularly Idris Elba who gets a much meatier role in here than Macavity does in the stage show, and it doesn’t work AT ALL. It’s hammy to be sure which has a certain amount of charm to it, but because he’s not just coming in and quickly leaving the stage, he has to have motivation and believable character choices to sustain his extra screen time and the film is struggles mightily to come up with anything. It all just feels too literal for a movie about anthropomorphic cats as it just raises questions that the show didn’t. The whole Jellicle Cats thing makes SO much more sense in the show because it’s a gathering of specific cats so it’s clear we’re dealing with some sort of tribe, but the movie isn’t just at the gathering; it’s all over the place in London, so how are we to know who’s a Jellicle Cat and who isn’t? Are ALL cats Jellicle Cats in this movie? What about Mr. Mistoffelees magic or the cat magic in general? How literally are we supposed to take actual disappearances into puffs of smoke in a world that already feels too close to real for the whimsy of everything from the show to carry through? Speaking of whom, they REALLY muted Mr. Mistoffelees musical number which was one of the best in the show and is just kind of weirdly re-contextualized as something much more sedate in this; something that’s true for a few of the other songs, but you REALLY feel it there. If I were to give this movie credit for doing ONE thing better, I thought that the special effects and bombast of the big screen worked in favor of Skimbleshanks’s number. It’s a complete aside from everything else going on in the film so in that sense it feels the closest to the show and it’s pretty well executed. Everything else though, not even close. The musical does it ALL way better.
I usually try not to ramble that much when examining the flaws of a movie, but this is just a kettle of fish that cannot be contained in just one review. For that reason I guess I can’t say that I truly hated it because there is just so much to the darn thing that I can find a few interesting or engaging moments, and even the bad things are at least MESMERIZINGLY bad which is better than being boring or being outright hateful. This is the kind of bad filmmaking I can at least find joy in as a critic; like solving a really challenging puzzle or perhaps more aptly watching OTHER people solve the puzzle because I expect a lot of really great analysis of this adaptation in the very near future. On its own, independent of whatever enjoyment I get from TALKING about it, it’s not a particularly good use of your time or money. It’s big, bombastic, and full of studio cash, but it’s also incoherent and ugly to look at which makes even it a chore to get through no matter how baffling it all seems at first. Shockingly bad has a shelf life and at nearly two hours I ran out energy to pop my monocle long before the final curtain call. Check it out at some point just for the heck of it (and to get the most out of whatever video essays we get next year), but don’t waste your money seeing it in a theater. At least at home you’re more likely to get away with singing along to the songs, though I’m not sure your actual cats will be too happy about it.