"You’ve seen the trailer. You’ve had nightmares about it. Perhaps you swore long ago that you’d never dare see it. But me? Why, I traveled straight to the belly of the cat. I knew what had to be done. My calling was to make the journey and, upon my return, travel far and wide to spread the truth. Here, my friends, is that truth. Take my hand, and let us walk together through our greatest Jellicle joys and our worst feline fears." --Grace Triantafyllos, 8th Grade
You’ve seen the trailer. You’ve had nightmares about it. Perhaps you swore long ago that you’d never dare see it. But me? Why, I traveled straight to the belly of the cat. I knew what had to be done. My calling was to make the journey and, upon my return, travel far and wide to spread the truth. Here, my friends, is that truth. Take my hand, and let us walk together through our greatest Jellicle joys and our worst feline fears.
Cats (2019) was directed by Tom Hooper, based on the popular 1981 musical with the same name, composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber (which was, in turn, inspired by a poetry collection by T.S. Eliot, published in 1939, titled Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats). In the movie adaptation, a variety of cats, all belonging to a group called the Jellicles, compete for a chance to go to the Heaviside Layer and be reincarnated.
Concerning, I know. And it’s even more terrifying than it sounds. The movie has not been well received, mainly due to the horrific and extremely poorly executed CGI, but that’s only the tip of the nightmarish iceberg.
I knew what I was getting into when I went to see Cats at one of the only movie theaters in the Bay Area that was still playing it not even a month after its release--or so I thought. The only way that I can describe this movie is that it’s simultaneously so much better and so much worse than you’d expect. Cats is a conundrum. It contradicts itself, and it evokes emotions in me that contradict each other. It’s like watching a car crash, after which cat people with broken limbs exit the car and try to have a La La Land “Another Day of Sun” moment. Cats is a tangled mess of hysteria, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to assess each and every string, but I’ll start with the most obvious.
From the moment the movie starts, the camera panning down to the glowing pink street, it becomes clear that you’re about to witness something unlike anything you’ve ever seen. The cats look sort of like naked Barbie and Ken dolls covered in fur, and their movements are not human nor feline. They climb walls and ceilings like spiders and, at times, their tails shake rapidly back and forth as if they’ve been possessed--granted, my own cat does that when he pees, but I don’t think that’s the look Hooper was going for. Sometimes they stand like people, sometimes they walk on all fours, sometimes they do pirouettes, all with human faces and hands and feet. All with fingers and toes and lips. Some of the cats wear clothing, while others twirl naked through the street. Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson) gets the best of both worlds, unzipping her fur to reveal yet another layer whilst dancing with disproportional mice and cockroaches with tiny human faces and limbs.
Even the set design is downright bizarre. Everything is oddly animated, from beds to curtains to shrimp, the lighting is somewhat sickening, and the proportions of the cats in comparison to everything else is one of many aspects of this movie that will make you feel like you’ve followed Alice into some modern-day London version of Wonderland where all of the humans have been replaced by dozens of Cheshire cats. Surely everyone involved in this movie realized their mistake as soon as production began?
It’s impossible to tell if the actors in this movie took it seriously. The songs, except for some of the boring ones at the end, are frightening, due to the demonic chanting and unnatural movements of the Jellicles. There are moments sprinkled throughout the film in which the cats rub up against each other, meow, or hiss aggressively. These are the funniest moments in the film, but it really makes one wonder how the actors must have felt once they realized what they’d gotten themselves into. How did Dame Judi Dench feel when her fellow actors took turns rubbing their cheeks against hers? Did Jason Derulo’s face burn as he exclaimed, “milk?” Just how ashamed did Sir Ian McKellen feel as he lapped at a saucerful of the aforementioned liquid?
The overall plot is boring and virtually nonexistent, and nothing about this movie makes sense. The protagonist, Victoria, is dull, and we follow her around as she does other strange and boring things with other strange and mostly boring characters that want to be the next Jellicle to die and be reincarnated in cat heaven (or something like that. Who can say?). There are strange elements of kidnap and teleportation mixed in, and what even happened with that chandelier? Somehow, the cats end up dancing on a train in the middle of the movie, there’s a scene involving garbage cans and shrimp, and at one point Bustopher Jones (played by James Corden) throws up a hairball in the face of the accomplice, Growltiger (Ray Winstone), of the evil Macavity (Idris Elba). Apparently, the musical lacks plot as well, but I have a feeling that the movie was worse in this aspect as well as every other.
The worst thing about Cats is how much it dragged on. I found myself trying to sneak a glance at my phone to check the time on several occasions near the end. Cats seems very self aware in this aspect, as if it’s doing it purposefully—shamelessly, even. When Mr. Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson) attempts to teleport Old Deuteronomy (Dame Judi Dench) back to the Jellicles, it takes up what seems like ten minutes of the movie. He tries at least five times, failing over and over again. Mr. Mistoffelees? More like Mr. Mistopeplease. And after that, there are at least three times where it seems like the movie is about to end, but then another song starts or some other stupid, boring, pointless thing that literally no one cares about happens. In the final and most terribly self aware instance of this, there’s some forgettable dramatic pause while the cats sit on a statue, and it really seems like it’s about to end. Until Judi Dench turns to the audience, and recites some nursery-rhyme like line about the essence and nature of cats and how they aren’t dogs (I don’t understand why they felt that tidbit was necessary). Each time this happened, the whole audience actually cried out in agony.
Cats left me with many, many questions--that’s the one thing I’m truly sure of. Like, why are these cats so desperate to be reincarnated? Why can the chandelier in the building of the Jellicle ball fly? Why did they give the cockroaches human faces? Where did all the people go? Why did someone create such a thing? The only good thing that can be said about Cats is that there are moments--small moments--where it’s so unbelievably disgusting that it’s funny. The movie should be enjoyed with a friend, and I definitely don’t recommend wasting money on seeing it in the theater. Even those ceremonious movie watchers will feel the need to talk, criticize, cackle, and scream throughout their viewing to comfort themselves. Unless you’re into that sort of thing--in which case, be my guest.