Who Let the ‘Cats’ Out of the Bag?: Media Monopoly and Film
“Cats” is a difficult movie to review because it is less like a movie and more like an extended crime against humanity—and possibly God—that runs for an hour and fifty minutes. Nevertheless, a discussion of it must be attempted, because we are generally in the habit of documenting atrocities committed against the public consciousness. What do you get when you cross a death cult with a book of T.S. Eliot poems, the writer behind the longest running musical on Broadway, a cast running the gamut from Jason Derulo to Dame Judi Dench, and a media monopoly that has nothing better to do than terrorize cinemas worldwide with a desperate and unsightly cash grab? You get “Cats.” And you really wish you hadn’t.
Andrew Lloyd Webber adapted “Cats” from “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” by acclaimed poet T.S. Eliot. It debuted first on London’s West End, and then on Broadway, in 1981 and 1982 respectively. It is about a group of cats in London called Jellicles, who gather once a year to select a contender to move onto the Heaviside Layer—Heaven for them, and Hell for everyone who has to hear them sing about it—and have a chance at reincarnation and a new life. That lucky cat is the Jellicle Choice, and they must compete with a musical performance to be deserving of the mercy.
In parsing the true tragedy of “Cats,” we can turn first to the one most responsible for its transgressions: its director, Tom Hooper. It is not Hooper’s first time directing a movie musical; his 2012 “Les Miserables” won multiple Academy Awards and Golden Globes. Conversely, “Cats” is both a cry for help and a resignation letter from the business of film wrapped into one horrifying package.
The first of many problems with “Cats” is that it is remarkably devoid of eye-catching camera-work or comprehensible scenes and characters. In its heyday, “Cats” was the kind of pitch that was just outlandish enough to work, a plot that makes audiences and investors alike question if it is a story that really needs to be told. It succeeded onstage because the costuming and makeup were more whimsical than psychologically disturbing, the actors had real technical talent, and because Broadway was ready for something new. None of those elements are present in the 2019 film.
The costuming and animation—words which, when applied to “Cats,” seem unfair to everyone who has ever operated in good faith in those professions—are actively unsettling. The titular cats retain their human hands, feet, mouths, and faces; however, their heads are sloppily edited with fur and cat ears. Their bodies are anthropomorphized, replete with the appallingly indecent suggestion of human breasts for the unlucky female felines. At one point during a stylized, soulless version of “Macavity,” Taylor Swift shakes her chest at the camera in a way that is likely meant to be teasingly suggestive and is instead emotionally traumatic. Judi Dench plays Old Deuteronomy, leader of the Jellicles, and her wedding ring is present on her human hand for the entirety of the film. Perhaps the FX artists gave up mid-edit in horror. Some of the cats also wear clothes, making for a difficult contemplation of what constitutes Jellicle nudity. Playing Macavity the Mystery Cat—whom I wish was still a mystery, and thus unknown, to me—Idris Elba begins the film in a coat and hat, but ends it in only his God-given fur. It evinces the unfortunate sensation of being forced to watch a bestial stripshow. The cats spend most of their time on two legs. As I watched, I realized there was a good reason humans are the only species capable of performing bipedal locomotion. Overall, it lacks the realism a Broadway show can bring, elevated from the tongue-in-cheek costuming of adults in headbands with ears to a sickening display of mutant Jellicles like something out of Doctor Moreau’s darkest fantasies. The scene transitions are unremarkable and rely so heavily on CGI that they are neither worth discussion nor a second look. For that alone, “Cats” is more than just a cinematic failure. In a just world, it would be career-ending.
Tom Hooper cannot take all the blame for “Cats”. His accomplices are easy to find in the cast, headlined by Francesca Hayward as Victoria, the white-furred protagonist. The film—a word which I use as loosely as possible—also features, among others, James Corden, Jason Derulo, and Jennifer Hudson. Hayward, the main character, is an excellent dancer but a glaringly mediocre singer. Meanwhile, Corden lacks the baritone necessary to lend an ounce of gravitas to the role, and thus his Bustopher Jones is more foppish than a proper gentlemanly cat-pitalist. Moreover, his character’s elite status introduces the concept of a cat class hierarchy, with a bloated feline bourgeoisie. I am certainly against animal cruelty, but I think Bustopher might be first in line for the guillotine when the revolution comes.
Next, there is the unlikely Jason Derulo, who plays Rum Tum Tugger with swaggering and disconcerting sensuality. Derulo capers through a bar in an orgiastic frenzy of squirming cats, with taps gushing milk that have strangely phallic implications. It is probably the best, and yet still overwhelmingly bad, song in the film. And regarding songs, Taylor Swift’s original “Beautiful Ghosts” is such an embarrassment to the concept of music that I hesitate to discuss it further. Suffice it to say Swift lacks the authorial acumen to compose something worth listening to. But at least Jennifer Hudson’s Grizabella sings the famous “Memory” beautifully. Sadly, she is interrupted by Hayward’s tentative warble at all the wrong points, and the soaring crescendo is broken in film by Grizabella sobbing over her plight. By the middle of “Cats,” I became convinced it was irredeemable, an inclination which I am now certain was justified. Much like a Boschian tableau, the closer you look, the worse “Cats” reveals itself to be. Thus, the only way to be safe is to simply not look at all.
But the worst thing about “Cats” is what it represents. It had a budget of 95 million dollars and yet managed to be the worst thing on screen in 2019. It flopped at the box office, which should give us all hope for humanity’s taste in movies. For a smaller studio, missing the mark so completely would be a devastating blow. But for Universal Pictures, it won’t make a dent. In a year in which “Parasite” was grudgingly allowed a tenth of the accolades it deserves and in which “Joker”—a film which has more in common with headlines about domestic terrorists than it does with the rest of the American populace—is a frontrunner for the most prestigious awards, Universal decided that “Cats” is the story that needs to be told. As long huge studios continue to producing poisonous, milquetoast, two-hour torture devices, there won’t be room for new stories to grow. And like Hudson’s Grizabella, we’ll be left with only memories—memories of films that excited us, that opened doors to new worlds, that allowed us to see new perspectives. And those memories will simply not be enough.