NOTE: I was ‘privileged’ enough to see, “Cats” in its originally released cut, without the subsequently ‘upgraded’ visuals that Universal provided in a ‘patch’ to theatres. Yes, “Cats” is so awfully made that it literally required a patch shortly after its public release, like some half-baked triple-A video game, because its visuals are that horrid. I can’t attest to the improved visuals, but I can assure you that they would not have saved this movie, nor my sanity.
In most instances, I can understand why a movie is made. This is even true of bad or mediocre movies, which usually at least have some sort of name recognition behind them, whether it’s a lead actor, a director, or, most commonly, a recognizable franchise brand. I guess some of that is at least true when it comes to Cats, a feature film adaptation of the beloved Broadway stage production by Andrew Lloyd Webber, in turn adapted from poetry book, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot. That’s two names for the price of one, assuming you’re among the handful of people who are actually familiar with the works of T.S. Eliot in this day and age. Chances are however, you’ve at least heard of Cats in passing from your friends with a passion for musical theatre, since it is one of Webber’s most famous stage productions, alongside his iconic stage adaptation of Phantom of the Opera.
Despite that though, even knowing that Cats came from somewhere, namely a source with enough of a cult following to merit interest from a board room full of Universal executives, this may be one of the first instances in over a decade wherein I can’t tell you why this movie was made. Cats is an imaginative, awe-inspiring and proudly surreal experience on stage, but if ever there was proof that a stage concept can’t translate to film, it’s this movie. That’s the diplomatic account. The account more accurately based in my true feelings towards Cats is that it’s an experiment that failed so spectacularly that I’m surprised I’m not suing anyone for having been subjected to it. I’ve never sued anyone in my life, but if I were to do so, it would probably be because they forced me to watch Cats.
What’s wrong with Cats? This is one of those instances where you instead have to ask, what’s right with Cats? Even with Tom Hooper, the director of The King’s Speech and The Danish Girl behind it, two movies that won Oscars (The King’s Speech even won Best Picture for its release year!), Cats feels like an easy sweeper for this year’s Razzies. It’s a movie so spectacularly mis-conceived, so unfathomably horrible, and so inexplicable in its final product, that you have to wonder if it’s somehow all an elaborate prank on anyone that ever dared to take the medium of filmmaking seriously. Even Universal seemed to be fully aware that the movie was a disaster before release, since they put it up against Disney’s and LucasFilm’s juggernaut franchise sequel, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, essentially sending it off to die, and somehow hoping that no one would notice the absurd amount of money that the studio sunk into highly exposed, extra lavish marketing.
Well, we noticed. Sadly, not even the shadow of a fairly disappointing Star Wars climax can hide the psychological litter box that Universal saw fit to close the decade with. Just because you can smell the stink however, doesn’t mean you’re truly ready for the cinematic excrement that will leave you persistently uncomfortable at best, and suffering an existential meltdown at worst.
Cats obstensibly has a cast of characters in it. I recognize the familiar faces of an astonishing roster of respected actors at least, all of whom must have very damning blackmail against them, thus forcing them to the hellish fate of having their likenesses awkwardly shoved into CGI cat-person bodies that try to move like humans, but are very distinctly not human. Who are these characters? I wish I knew. They have names, that’s for sure. Some of these names are even sung in Cats’ array of operatic song numbers, so I feel like I should know them. Despite that however, I couldn’t tell you anything about a single personality in Cats, at least in terms of their actual identities. I can tell you how terrifying and unnatural they are, but in terms of how this world works, and how its denizens operate, I haven’t a clue. It could be a psychological defense mechanism on my part, or it could be the fact that this movie is just that badly written.
As sad as it is to see esteemed performers like Judi Dench, Ian McKellen and Idris Elba among this cast of, ahem, ‘personalities’ (and I use that term loosely), the one I really feel for is poor British dancer, Francesca Hayward, who made the truly woeful decision of trying to break into the Hollywood scene with Cats. Maybe Hayward has a wonderful sense of humour. I sure hope she does, because she’s going to need it from here on out! Regardless, Hayward plays the main character of Cats, Victoria, a white cat who is quite literally tossed into the movie right from the opening minutes, in just as harsh and unsympathetic a manner as the audience will be feeling after they realize that they could have gone to see Jumanji: The Next Level with the kids instead. Victoria is supposed to be the eyes of the audience, but while she seems to be having fun being introduced to the ‘Jellicles’, the tribe of cats that Cats is supposed to be about, the audience will not be feeling the magic, instead questioning why the theatre isn’t being unexpectedly raided by some sort of militarized D.A.R.E. campaign.
I could try and analyze why James Corden is playing a proudly fat cat named Bustopher Jones, or why Judi Dench is slumming it as a gender-swapped take on elder Jellicle cat, Old Deuteronomy, or why Jennifer Hudson is making a valiant, albeit failed effort to save the movie as Grizabella the Glamour Cat, one of the only characters that I didn’t find myself wishing would meet the business end of a hungry German shepherd, but what’s the point? Cats is often deliberately obtuse, portraying a horrendously confused world that makes up the rules as it goes along, and never seems to develop a consistent vision behind its characters. How can I determine this? Well, Idris Elba’s Macavity the Mystery Cat has magic powers, and can teleport himself and other characters, for a start. How? I don’t know. The drugs presumably wore off before I could determine this. Taylor Swift also shows up for exactly one musical number as Bombalurina, a sparkly catnip-brandishing minx who seems to be appearing in hopes of snagging an Oscar for Best Original Song, except that song has sparkly catnip in it, so I don’t think that’s going to happen. Also, that song is in Cats, and thus, it would too quickly upset the sensitive constitutions of the Academy’s esteemed members anyway.
Even then, the one thing I truly can’t get past regarding the frustratingly undeveloped, yet heinously overqualified cast throughout Cats, even more than the fact that none of this shit makes any goddamn sense, is the fact that everyone seems like they want to bang everyone, all the time. Cats presents an ensemble of characters so over-the-top horny that even its inevitable porn parody would tell them to take it down a notch. It’s like everyone’s Valium was suddenly replaced with Ecstasy, except even then, it was the highly experimental kind of Ecstasy that hasn’t been balanced enough to be ready for street consumption yet. Perhaps it’s a deliberate tactic by the actors, who possibly made the collective agreement that the only way to cope with the experience of making Cats is to use it as a prelude for the kind of epic orgy that even TMZ couldn’t properly do justice to. Well, as long as they’re having fun, I guess, because we, the audience, certainly are not.
Cats doesn’t really have a plot so much as it does an end result. Even then however, the end result is a metaphor that clearly worked a lot better on stage, since its final product in this movie will just leave you wondering how all of your cumulative life decisions led you to seeing Cats on the big screen. Even if I tried to explain the point of Cats’ ‘storyline’ here, anyone who isn’t familiar with the stage play would simply wonder what the hell I was talking about. There’s certainly an element of poetry here, since this story is twice adapted from an original book of poems by T.S. Eliot, but there’s a reason why most poems are not adapted to film; Something that’s purely meant to inspire the imagination loses pretty much all of its magic when it’s being laid before you in a visual medium.
Even considering that however, Cats is so astonishingly misguided that you have to wonder why anyone at Universal, or any movie studio, ever would have greenlit this pitch. Cats not really having a plot isn’t immediately a recipe for disaster on its own, mind you, if the captivating nature of its world can at least compensate by being enthralling as an experience, more so than a story. This idea certainly works on stage, but not on film in this case, where Cats instead assaults your mind, and general sense of decency, with an incoherent mess of CGI-laden ramblings, ramblings that are so oblivious and scattered that they’re practically senile. It wouldn’t be unfair then to call the entire mess pointless, with Victoria’s journey through the world of the Jellicles ultimately being little more than a cinematic fever dream, whose only successfully conveyed themes are that a mind is a terrible thing to waste, specifically on Cats.
I’d like to believe that director, Tom Hooper genuinely believed in this movie at some point. After all, Hooper directed 2012’s film adaptation of Les Miserables, a movie that won a handful of so-so Oscars, and which Cats seems to be intended as a much more upbeat spiritual follow-up to. I also have to believe however that, somewhere along the line, even Hooper realized that there was just no saving this turd. Hooper does what he can to initially try and build some sort of world with Cats, but later into the movie especially, you get the sense that Hooper was just trying to get by and do something. Hooper seemingly didn’t always know exactly what he was doing here, since Cats’ direction is all over the map, ranging wildly from being playful, to crass, to morose, to sinister, to furious, and then back to playful. The only consistent element behind the direction is how horny everyone is all the time. Seriously, why is everyone in this movie so horny all the time?!
‘Horny’ doesn’t really count as a tone though (unless your movie is being distributed by Brazzers), so the only other conclusion I can draw is that Cats doesn’t really have a tone. Instead, it tries a little bit of everything, and amazingly, it succeeds at absolutely none of it. It’s a dead-on-arrival spectacle that’s trying so desperately to convince you it’s somehow alive that you’d think Hooper was trying to channel Weekend at Bernie’s. In fact, the less this movie works, the more Hooper tries to throw more gaudy, over-the-top gloss on it, as if he’s hoping that no one in the audience will notice the smell of shit if he blasts enough confetti in their faces. Unfortunately, that’s not really how senses work. I would say that one should just call a spade a spade here, but Cats weirdly seems to be in denial about its own unrelenting badness, and yet tragically, it’s impossible to ever save it from itself.
You’d think that an adaptation of a stage musical would at least have some halfway decent music in it, right? Well, if there is one small saving grace to Cats, it is the fact that some of its music is tolerable, and not all of its staging choreography is awful (though a lot of it is). Again, it’s Jennifer Hudson that largely salvages the otherwise mediocre-to-tedious singing throughout this movie, with Grizabella being a character that almost manages to achieve the threshold of having a real arc or real emotional stakes. Jennifer Hudson is just one of many actors that are too good for this travesty though, and worse still is that she’s not in the movie very much, because Cats has no idea how to pace its ensemble properly.
That’s a big problem in a movie where pretty much every bit of dialogue is sung, and never just spoken. Sure, Tom Hooper directed another movie adaptation of an operatic stage production, Les Miserables, which communicates its story and dialogue pretty much entirely through song as well, but Les Miserables at least had the decency to take place in the real world, during a recognizable point in French history. Cats, on the other hand, is constantly singing about a surreal fantasy world that it claims is interesting, but never manages to present it as anything other than inconsistent and baffling. Despite all of the bombast and fanfare behind the music and audio mixing here, it ultimately amounts to an over-indulgent fallacy of telling, not showing, since all that Cats is actually presenting to go with its occasionally decent singing and music is a bunch of flashy nonsense.
Cats has allegedly had its visuals improved since its initial release, though that’s not the cut of the movie I saw. Reports indicate that Universal initially rushed Cats into theatres before its special effects could be properly completed (and I believe it, because the initial cut of the movie looks pretty awful), but even considering that, I have no idea how one is supposed to make this movie look good. Cats may be a bold experiment in trying something very innovative with the current standard of Hollywood CGI, placing recognizable actor likenesses into extra lithe and detailed cat bodies. The thing is though, it doesn’t work, at all. Even the original stage production from the 1980’s looks more believable than this movie from the very end of 2019, largely because the stage production incorporates actors and sets that are actually present and tangible, whereas this feature film adaptation feels like it was all done in front of a green screen.
The result is some of the most laughably abysmal CGI-driven filmmaking since the sorry early blockbuster spectacles of the 1990’s! Cats never once succeeds at pulling audiences into its world, which is already making a deliberate effort to be weird and surreal. In a way, it’s a shame, since some of the crew clearly put a ton of effort into the makeup and costume design, which might have actually made for a semi-decent visual suite, if Cats’ final product wasn’t largely an incoherent mess of computer-generated vomit. This in turn completely undermines what should be another saving grace to the movie’s performances, namely the choreography. On stage, Cats can be a very impressive spectacle, due to its awe-inspiring movement and fully-realized dance numbers. On film however, buried under several layers of bad CGI, no one moves naturally, which makes the supposedly ambitious dance numbers fall flat on their faces. It’s all a feeble effort to convince you that you’re looking at something extraordinary, when in reality, you’re witnessing the clumsy preamble to a whole lot of agents being fired.
Cats is the kind of movie that just makes you feel embarrassed for everyone involved. Despite its talented cast and crew, its fairly ambitious production values, and the fact that it’s adapting a multiple Tony-winning stage musical, this movie adaptation of Cats is a horrifically failed experiment that once again illustrates the truth that most modern studio executives never seem to want to accept; Not everything should be a movie. Sometimes, source material is best left alone, and frankly, Cats was doing just fine as a stage production, before Hollywood came along and forcibly dragged it into the world of cinema, kicking, screaming and drugged out of its mind.
Fortunately, this bad deed didn’t go unpunished, since Cats also has the distinction of being one of the worst box office flops of 2019. It’s not hard to see why either. Right from the trailers, Cats fails to justify its existence, taking a stirring, impressively-performed stage musical, and distilling it into a mess of botched CGI and confused direction. This movie wants so badly to convince you that it’s magical, and poetic, and has something to say, but it never says anything, nor does it ever manage to have a real point. It’s Hollywood hubris once again taken to an embarrassing extreme, the metaphorical Icarus of over $90 million, plus the extra high marketing costs, disappearing into a black hole of its own shame and incompetence.
In a way, Cats is fascinatingly terrible though, perhaps granting it some sort of weird second life as a cult favourite disaster akin to The Room or Plan 9 From Outer Space. Perhaps if Cats had more explicitly committed to being an over-the-top farce, maybe it would have been more tolerable as a product of the movie medium. In my humble opinion however, this ill-fated film adaptation of Cats is best left forgotten, not even being worth the semi-laboured litter box pun that serves as the meager consolation prize for critics like me that forced themselves to sit through this holocaust of true entertainment.
- Some of the music is solid
- Jennifer Hudson is decent
- Exceptionally awful writing made worse by very uncomfortable performances
- Confused direction that's trying way too hard
- Horrendously awful, unnatural-looking visuals (especially in the original cut)