While wondering how to even begin discussing Cats, I started thinking about 2001: A Space Odyssey. Yes, you heard correctly. No, I’m not comparing Kubrick’s masterpiece to this feral nightmare, but I do think he and Arthur C. Clarke got it wrong. When extraterrestrials finally contacted Earth, it wasn’t with a black monolith at the dawn of man or in the year 2001—it was in 2019 with Tom Hooper’s Cats. Like the monolith, the dark, sentient entity that is Cats has probably always existed in some realm unbeknownst to us. Cats transcends time. Cats transcends life. And, for better or worse, Cats has arrived.
Before I begin, full disclosure: I’ve never seen Andrew Lloyd Weber’s original musical, but I have seen some of the live-taping on VHS in my friend’s basement. We had to stop when the image suddenly turned negative and began to violently warp until it looked like a Jefferson Airplane video. After seeing Cats in theaters, I no longer believe in God, but otherwise I’d assume that cursed tape was His attempt at a warning.
Cats takes place over a single night in London, whose deserted alleys are probably meant to add an air of enchantment but feel more like the barren streets of Toontown. A group of theatrical felines called Jellicles prepare for the annual Jellicle Ball, during which one special cat will be selected to start a new life in a mysterious place called the Heaviside Layer. We learn all this through the eyes of a timid new cat named Victoria, who’s played with endearing naiveté by ballerina Francesca Hayward. Taken from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot, all the other characters have whimsical pornstar names like Munkustrap, Skimbleshanks and Griddlebone, which feels appropriate given their perpetual horniness. The rest of the “story” is basically just the Jellicles introducing themselves and giving each other bedroom eyes.
In case you’ve been living under a rock, each cat is played by a human covered in CGI fur but with normal human hands, resulting in an uncanny anthropomorphic being that’s neither fully cat nor person. Logistically, this made sense in the stage production—and, I guess, was part of its “charm”?—but bringing it to the silver screen with computer animation like some kind of Weird Science for furries was Hollywood’s worst idea since The Emoji Movie. Yes, it might have been worse for the filmmakers to just animate literal cats (see: The Lion King), so I don’t know what the alternative would be. Actually, the alternative should have been “don’t make Cats.”
I was also completely unable to work out the rules of this cat-person world. For example, one Jellicle wears pants while others do not. Is this only allowed because he’s apparently a train conductor? Why does Idris Elba just look like a nude man? Why does James Corden just look like a man with mutton chops and funeral makeup? And why, for the love of all that is holy, does Rebel Wilson unzip her cat skin to reveal a showgirl costume underneath—on top of more cat skin?
Anyway, trapped in these fuzzy corporeal prisons are a miscellany of celebrities including Wilson, Corden, Jason Derulo, Ian McKellen, and Taylor Swift. Derulo is pretty good, and McKellen’s understated musical number stirred my soul enough. But Wilson and Corden are unwatchable—partly because of the endless fat jokes, which just felt mean on the movie’s part—and judging by Swift’s accent, she’s unable to tell the difference between London and Long Island. There’s also the incomparable Jennifer Hudson as Grizabella, a washed-up Glamour Cat ostracized by the rest of the tribe and left to reminisce about her glory days. Watching her belt out “Memory” was by far the most compelling part of Cats, although I wasn’t sure if my heart broke more for Grizabella or Hudson, who deserves better. I felt similarly about Judi Dench as the wise Jellicle matriarch Old Deuteronomy and Idris Elba as Macavity the evil Mystery Cat. They don’t deserve this.
These admirably committed actors are also hindered by Cats’ disastrous sound mixing, which makes my middle school’s production of Aladdin Jr. seem award-worthy by comparison. I couldn’t tell what Jason Derulo was saying half the time and strained to hear Francesca Hayward in her rather sweet performance of “Beautiful Ghosts,” a new and forgettable song written for the film by—as you can probably guess from the title—Taylor Swift. In the moments between numbers, I felt like I was in a vacuum. This is a shame, because the film’s neon lighting actually casts a nice ambient glow, but the dead silence combined with London’s eerie stillness only make it feel more like a digital hellscape. I’m in awe of this film’s ability to be both dizzyingly spastic and completely lifeless at the same time.
What remained of my sanity after seeing Rebel Wilson sing and dance with baby mice and cockroaches before sliding them down her gullet was shattered by a total loss of reality and existential crisis. Nobody knows how time passes in Cats, as characters separate and reunite like long-lost friends, but somehow over the course of only one night. The scale of this world is just as nonsensical, with some silverware measuring roughly the length of a cat’s body. And, while I think the Heaviside Layer is shown to be the top floor of a building, Hooper also keeps all its religious subtext and presents it as a kind of afterlife. I was struck by a horrific notion… are these cats being euthanized? If so, Swift—who played a small and random role in Phillip Noyce’s film adaptation of The Giver—has a way of being in movies about supposed mercy killing.
If this review has been chaotic and unintelligible, I apologize, but I believe it accurately represents Cats. My film notes are literally things like, “Can Idris Elba do magic? Is he killing people? Is he a pirate?” and “Why is Taylor Swift drugging people?” But here’s the big question still on my mind: who is this PG-rated acid trip for? Children will either flee from the theater or fall into a dead-eyed stupor from which they may never recover. Their parents won’t make it through the first 5 minutes. Even theater kids will probably say, “No thanks.” And if you’re a twenty-something planning on using Cats as a hallucinogenic stimulant on some sort of misguided vision quest… just don’t. This movie was a fever dream that continued long after I left the theater, until I woke up the next morning with “Mr. Mistoffelees” echoing through the recesses of my brain like a radio transmission from purgatory.
I remember watching an early Cats featurette where the cast excitedly explained how the film would be pioneering in the field of CGI fur technology. Well, congratulations, Tom Hooper—you did it. But at what cost? In the immortal words of Dr. Ian Malcolm, “You were so preoccupied with whether you could, that you didn’t stop to think if you should.”
Verdict: 1 out of 5 stars
Because Jellicles can’t and Jellicles don’t. Stay home. Save your souls.