Cats - It's Like Singin' in the Rain, but Everyone Is a Cat. Also It Sucks.


Written by: T.S. Eliot, Lee Hall, Tom Hooper, Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed by: Tom Hooper
Starring: Francesca Hayward, Robbie Fairchild, Judi Dench, Ian McKellan, Idris Elba, James Corden, Rebel Wilson, Jason Derulo, Jennifer Hudson, Taylor Swift
Budget: $90,000,000

Imagine, if you will, being kidnapped on a stereotypical dark and stormy night, where rain assaults the pavement, and you're tossed into a burlap sack and thrown into the backseat of a car. The car drives for awhile; how many miles or how many hours, you're not really sure, you're in such a daze. It finally skids to a halt and you get tossed out onto the concrete. You emerge from the sack and look out into the most desolate city alleyway you've ever seen, dimly lit only by the dingiest of street lamps - and what appear to be eyes, glowing in the distance, watching you. You're scared, you're wet, you're weak, you're alone - and then a hand reaches out of the distance and you hear a voice that asks: "Would you like to watch me make the Jellicle choice?"

By now, you - gentle reader - are probably more than well aware of the critical reception the major motion picture adaptation of Cats has received from the internet. The reviews have made for enjoyable reading, but most reviews seem to focus on the same thing: that the film has particularly hideous and at times unnerving CGI.

Before I go any further, it would probably help if I describe the Broadway musical that Cats is based on. Unfortunately, you guys are out of luck, because I'm far from an expert on this subject. I've seen the musical once on a rancid old VHS tape at a friend's house, and I wasn't able to follow it for the most part. I didn't like any of the songs, the story was incomprehensible, and the visual style really didn't appeal to me. In the stage show, all the performers dress up as cats, with skin tight outfits, stupid wigs, and bright makeup. Most people who know about Cats already know this; the only reason I'm even bothering to mention it is that I'm sorta banking on people being unfamiliar with a lousy musical at this point. The sooner the stage show production of Cats falls out of favor with the general public, the better.

The trailer hit in the summer of last year, and it was immediately mocked - for good reason. It looked hideous, it was edited poorly, and it was a movie no one ever asked for. I distinctly remember where I was when I first saw it; I was lying in bed, I'd just woken up, and the first thing I saw on Twitter was the Cats trailer. As soon as I saw Francesca Hayward's face plastered onto that body, I yelled "Fuck!" and threw my phone against the wall. I raced to the bathroom to check the mirror and make sure that I hadn't been turned into a cat-person as well by some freakish Dr. Moreauvian nightmare. Luckily, all was clear and I went back to watch the rest of the trailer while laughing hysterically, just like everyone else.                     
  

                                      
                                                   The whole movie looks like this. They did this on purpose.
Strangely enough, it sorta stuck in the back of my mind as something I'd probably want to see, and perhaps even in a theater. You have to understand, I'm not a masochist, but I enjoy witnessing a good disaster every once in a while, even if it's an infuriating one like Suicide Squad. I don't often desire a movie to be bad, but sometimes it's nice to see a miserable idea for film explode like a zeppelin. There were a number of people were more amped to see Cats than they were to see Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker. As such, I ended up seeing Cats in theaters instead of Little Women. I'm a big-time executive, and I had to make a snap decision.

I'll do my best to describe the story, as I perceive it: Victoria is a cat. She gets abandoned in the middle of an alleyway in Britain, and she meets a gang of cats that call themselves the Jellicles. The Jellicle cats have three names - the names their human owners give them, their Jellicle names, and the names they give themselves that only they know. This is the least confusing part of the movie. Victoria meets a bunch of other cats who introduce themselves by way of bad songs and worse dances. This takes a little more than an hour, until all the cats decide to congregate in an abandoned theater. The oldest cat decides one cat shall die and be reborn in a new and better life. This cat takes a hot air balloon (in some productions it's a flying saucer) directly into the heart of the sun.

~fin~

I'm not making any of that up; watch the movie for yourself if you don't believe me. Some fans of the musical would insist there's more to it than that, that a) the songs tell the story of the community of the cats and b) meeting the cats is the real fun the musical. The problem with (a) is that this isn't really a story; there isn't any real progression from point A to point B. It's one thing to introduce a variety of characters, but if they're not going to do anything interesting or useful then you don't really have a storyline - emphasis on line. That's the key difference between The Lord of the Rings and The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. The problem with (b) is that none of these characters are likable or interesting in any capacity. Before I even bother to describe the characters - if I can, that's no guarantee at this juncture - I want to see if any of you out there can complete a little physical challenge I've concocted. It's not complicated; all you have to do is read the following list of names out loud without laughing:

  • Munkustrap
  • Bombalurina
  • Skimbleshanks
  • Bill Bailey
  • Mungojerrie
  • Grizabella
  • Rum Tum Tugger
  • Jennyanydots
  • Rumpleteazer
  • Bustopher Jones
  • Old Deuteronomy
  • Macavity
Not so easy, is it? I promise Mungojerrie isn't a portmanteau of two ethnic slurs. The names are bad enough (imagine naming a living creature "Rumpleteazer"), but the characters aren't even the slightest bit interesting. The Rum Tum Tugger (that was Big Bob Pataki's nickname in high school) is just curious and mercurial; whenever he's doing one thing, he'd rather be doing something else. Nobody could possibly care. Jennyanydots trains a bunch of cockroaches and mice to dance and march around for reasons hitherto unknown to the civilized world. Old Deuteronomy is just old, as far as I can tell. Most of the cats just hang out and do cat shit; there's really not a tremendous amount of substance here. The only mildly interesting cat is Macavity, the "villain" in this world, who is guilty of teleporting cats to a barge on the River Thames, thus making him the equivalent of this kid:
All this and more, in The Zone Where Normal Things Don't Happen Very Often
Even then, I hardly know Macavity's motivations. He wants to be reborn, sure, but so does everyone else. I guess one could argue that the songs do the heavy lifting when it comes to revealing character, but a) there's really no point since the cats don't do anything productive and b) the lyrics are entirely asinine. Consider the case of Rum Tum Tugger's song, which is one of the most humiliating, because it begins with a pretty nice slap bass line, but is immediately ruined by utterly meaningless lyrics. Why should I care about Asparagus, the theater cat? He used to perform? Who could possibly care? Every song feels like Bob Dylan inserting more syllables than can fit into a bar. Everyone agrees "Memory" is the best song in the production, and it has nothing to do with cats. Worse yet, because it has nothing to do with cats, it grinds the show to a screeching halt. Great job, Andrew Lloyd Webber!

It gets worse, though: the songs are bad enough, but there are multiple moments featuring extended dance sequences. I'm not talking about the types of dances featured in West Side Story, which drove or illustrated the narrative in some capacity, but dances that do absolutely nothing. These are the types of dances where you get the unshakeable feeling that they're just there to fill time, that whoever oversaw this thing couldn't think of anything better to do, so they just inserted a four minute long tap dance sequence. I know dancing is a big part of the stage show, and many of the performers are talented dancers, but the whole thing is so uninteresting. Nothing's really happening while Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat is tapping his feet (paws?) besides the audience getting progressively more and more bored.

That's not to say that the performers are the problem, at least not knowingly. One of the things I talk about all the time is appreciation for noticeable effort. If I can see you put the work in, I'm usually going to be far kinder toward whatever you're doing, even if I don't love it. This applies to movies, music, literature, video games, sports, work, romance, you name it. It's very noticeable in this movie that the performers are trying their best to raise this dreck up to something watchable, but it's not easy. Naoimh Morgan is trying her best as Rumpleteazer, but she's still named Rumpleteazer, and the story isn't going anywhere. Francesca Hayward is very pretty, but her look of wonder and awe doesn't mirror the audience's looks of confusion and disgust as well as it ought to. Robbie Fairchild just looks at things the entire movie; he never really has anything to do. Jason Derulo is a very talented singer, but he still has to sing the line "But I'll leap in your lap in the middle of your sewing/For there's nothing I enjoy like a horrible muddle." Judi "Grandma Dried Apple Head" Dench makes uncomfortable Nala-esque sex eyes at Ian McKellan, who's the only one actually acting like a cat in this movie (do you really wanna see an octogenarian lick the back of his hand and go "meowmeowMEOW"? Me neither). I like that everyone's trying their best, but they can't save this movie. I almost feel bad for them - but that pity doesn't extend to every actor.

I do not know why Rebel Wilson is employed in the entertainment industry. She is not funny. She cannot sing. She cannot dance. She cannot act. She cannot tell jokes. I don't know how or why she keeps getting work when she ought to be a manager at a Denny's. To give her not only her own song, but space for "humorous" ad-libs and asides that weren't present in the original production just boggles the mind. James Corden might actually be worse; he never should have said yes to this. I've never watched his show, but I assume it's reasonably successful. He might be the only other character who's less funny than Rebel Wilson, which is one of the more humiliating failures of the movie.

Most of the "jokes" in the movie are cat puns. Has anyone alive today actually said the words "What's the matter? Cat got your tongue?" out loud? There's one particularly terrifying scene toward the end of the movie where Judi Dench turns her wizened skull toward the camera and speaks directly to the audience, informing us that "A cat is not a dog." I don't know what to believe anymore.

I genuinely don't feel like the CGI is the problem with this movie. Is it *a* problem rather than *the* problem? I don't know, maybe for a little bit. The first time you see Robbie Fairchild's face you'll cringe, but after 5-10 minutes you realize "Oh, that's just the movie" and you sorta get used to it. I wouldn't go so far as to say it looks good, but it's not really the failing of the film like most internet reviewers made it out to be. I actually liked some of the ideas the production design and art direction had, as it builds on much of what the stage show set up. The performers being the size of cats makes sense, and even the cockroaches and mice having human faces didn't bug me as much as I thought it would. That being said, I had a major problem with Skimbleshanks' song; the scale is all messed up. I know Warner Bros. released what can only be called a patched version of Cats with improved CGI to some theaters after the complaints from patrons, but if there's a way to tell the difference between the two versions, then I haven't heard a definitive answer yet. Whichever version I watched was lousy enough, and I don't think some slightly altered version will be any better.

A rumored early version of Cats before they cleaned up the CGI

That's because the problem with Cats isn't that it has bad CGI, it's that it's based on...Cats. I don't know whether T.S. Eliot expected this tripe to catch on the way it did, but his nonsense poems were picked up by Andrew Lloyd Webber, and now we've got to deal with this. Say what you will about Rodgers and Hammerstein, but at least their musicals were about people, often real people or people who felt real, who had easily understood motivations, that fit into some sort of cohesive narrative. Cats is about obnoxious makeup and costumes, pointless dancing, bad songs, irritating writing, and generally wasting time. It's for the theater kids who smelled like old meat, and no one else.

Despite this, I've got a somewhat bold prediction: this will live on, either on streaming, home video, or a gonzo midnight movie showing, like The Room or Rocky Horror Picture Show. The young woman who saw this with me was on her third showing, if you can believe that. She was downright eager to see it again with me. I'm not sure if I'm ready to call it a GoodBad movie, but I wasn't miserable when I walked out of the theater. There are several moments where you're so baffled as to what's going on that you can't help but laugh. Other parts just feel like a carnival freak show, but more ethical because they did ask to look like this. Someone said "Yes, this is good, I like it this way," and that makes it a bit more excusable to throw your peanuts at it. It wouldn't surprise me if there were a number of people who actually did like the movie, but they're too ashamed to admit because of the critical reception.

In the end, it's okay to like things, even awful things that I hate. If you like the songs, like the songs. If you like the dancing, like the dancing. If you like the complete lack of a story, like...that. If you like Rebel Wilson's jokes, watch Isn't It Romantic? If you can back up your opinion with an informed perspective, I won't badger you. I'm sure you don't smell like old meat, and I'm sure you were very popular in high school. Just remember, when you defend this movie, this is what you sound like:

                              

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