Review: Cats5 January 2020
There are two main ways to tackle Tom Hooper’s Cats: as a big-budget, major studio blockbuster targeted for widespread appeal (which it is), or a joyfully plotless succession of songs that do not purport to be about anything other than, well, cats (which it also is). One encourages the viewer to engage logically with the material, whilst the other foregrounds spectacle for the sake of spectacle.
Cats is based on the 1981 musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, initially adapted from T.S Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. The film sees a selection of Jellicle cats (a name coined by Eliot as a distortion of the phrase ‘dear little cats’) competing in the Jellicle ball, the winner of which is chosen to ascend to the Heaviside layer. There, the worthy cat is reborn into a new, better life. The film hinges upon a premise that, itself, hinges upon multiple deviations of the same sequence: a cat is introduced, they sing about themselves, we barely see them again. Imagine you’re a plus-one at a party where you don’t know anyone, and you are continuously introduced to strangers throughout the evening with whom you make brief small talk and don’t interact for the remainder of the night. Mostly, that’s what it’s like to watch Cats.
Figuring out exactly how to view the 2019 adaptation is complicated by Hooper and Webber’s differing attitudes toward the material. In a 1994 interview with the Los Angeles Times, legendary theatre director Hal Prince recalled being confused by Webber’s allegorical intentions for the show. After listening to the compositions for the first time, Prince assumed the musical was a metaphor for English politics. However, when presented with this idea, Webber bewilderingly replied: “Hal, this is just about cats”.
When adapting Cats to screen, Hooper and co-writer Lee Hall added thematic depth to the story by introducing a relationship between protagonist Victoria (Francesca Hayward) and social outcast Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson). When the film premiered, Hooper posited it as an exploration of “the perils of tribalism”, a statement since disparaged by critics for being largely non-existent. It’s possible that trying to assign meaning to a frivolous show about various feline personalities was the first of many strikes against Hooper’s film—the year’s most unintentionally grotesque piece of media.
Because the film negates a traditional narrative arc, it’s almost counterproductive to review it as a traditional narrative feature. It requires a complete suspension of disbelief in order to be engaged with on an enjoyable level. At its core, it is a wildly CGI’d musical movie about cats begging to die, starring some of the most iconic people in entertainment (plus James Corden). In many respects, Universal Studios made a $95 million experimental film with A-list celebrities that boldly challenges the boundaries of bearable spectatorship. And they did it on accident.
So, before assigning a value judgement to Cats, it might be fruitful simply to identify the things that exist, and do not exist, in this nightmarish adaptation.
Exists: ‘digital fur technology’. In case you hadn’t heard, a team of animators transformed Dame Judi Dench and co. into cat/people hybrids with completely furry yet mostly human-looking bodies (for realism?) and most of us do not enjoy looking at them.
Do not exist: the laws of nature, physics and/or scale. Cats relishes in the nonsensical. Viewers are forced to witness Jennyannydots (Rebel Wilson) unzip her fur to reveal a sparkly pink jumpsuit with a second fur underneath. The dancers jump from surface to surface like floaty, Mary Poppins cats. A chorus line of cockroaches dance on a table. There is a scene in which Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat (Steven McRae) tap dances on (you guessed it) a railway, and he is entirely too small. I can’t stress this enough: do not seek logic from this film.
Exists: songs. They sure do sing them! With varying degrees of proficiency! Stream ‘Memory’ by Jennifer Hudson on Spotify! Don’t stream ‘Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats’ or it will be stuck in your head until death!
Does not exist: tone. Nothing coheres and nothing matters. Jennifer Hudson heavily channels Anne Hathaway in Les Misérables. Rebel Wilson and James Corden are in some bad slapstick performance from the 19th century. Sir Ian McKellen sombrely reminisces about the good ol’ days and about five minutes later, Taylor Swift seductively whisper-sings about sneaky crime cat Macavity (Idris Elba). Tom Hooper does not set the mood.
Exists: metatextual cat references. The existence of lines such as, “what’s the matter, cat got your tongue?”, “look what the cat dragged in”, and “don’t mess with the crazy cat lady!” allude to the characters’ complete lack of sense regarding the nature of their existence. Is there another Jellicle we haven’t met that goes around stealing tongues and dragging other Jellicles to different locations, referred to only as ‘The Cat’? When Wilson describes herself as a cat lady, does she mean that she, as a cat, owns several other cats? Or, is she merely stating her own species and gender? Much to think about.
Do not exist: dogs. In a direct-to-camera monologue at the film’s end, Dench explicitly reminds us “a cat is not a dog”. It’s the line that comes closest to doing any kind of worldbuilding, because it teaches us this: there are no dogs in Cats, but to the cats, there are dogs.
Exists: raw sexual energy. At a certain point during this movie, I simply wrote down “cats b rubbing”.
Does not exist: Jason Derulo’s penis. The cats all have mannequin-style genitals, by which I mean none. For audiences everywhere, this is a blessing in disguise, but for Jason Derulo, whose personal penis was embroiled in Instagram controversy earlier this year, it is an unfortunate cross he must bear. Quote: “They did CGI the dick out, I noticed that”.
Cats is an instance in which the online discussions, reviews and memes surrounding the film are significantly more enjoyable than the viewing experience itself. The pure, unhinged chaos lends itself to fun discourse, but (somewhat bafflingly) does not correspond to a fun time at the cinema. It’s a great cultural artefact, not a great film.
The format of Cats is not a failure in and of itself. It sustained a stage show in London for 21 years, New York for 18, and has continued in Japan for 36 years. However, Webber’s format works for theatre because the energy of a live show paired with trained musical performers committing to their roles leads to something captivating, regardless of narrative. When adapting Cats to film, the benefits of a live performance are flattened by a screen. This is worsened by Hooper’s direction, where close-ups, choppy editing and restless camerawork frequently fail to showcase the prowess of his dancers (and trust me, it is largely dancing). This is not to mention the film’s stylistic endeavour toward hyper-realistic cat-people, which disturbs rather than immerses.
Stephen Sondheim famously said that content dictates form, and with Cats, we might consider how content survives—or rather, does not survive—the displacement from one medium to another. It’s worthwhile to consider the downfalls of adapting every successful piece of intellectual property into a wide-release blockbuster without first reflecting upon the nature of the text and, in particular, the reason it’s successful enough to consider adapting in the first place. Even if Taylor Swift writes an awards-season-worthy song, Universal spends millions of dollars covering celebrity genitals with fur, and a ‘be kind to each other’ ethos is slapped onto a nonsense premise, your adaptation is not guaranteed to work—maybe not even in the ‘so-bad-it’s-good’ genre. There are many things to pick apart about Cats, its conception and execution, but most glaring is the indication that it shouldn’t have been adapted at all.
Future Razzie winner Cats is in cinemas now.