Before the opening credits of Cats is a bevy of children and family advertisements for upcoming theatrical releases. I understand that the tightrope that advertisers have always traversed is a tricky one. How do we sell this product? What age, demographic, and market are we going to bombard with these commercials? Well, in the case of this particular Broadway musical translated into a cinematic format by Tom Hooper, my stance remains firm, just because it’s situated in the Holiday release schedule doesn’t mean it’s for families, let alone children.
During that monotonous advertisement segment before the film, I took stock of who was in my theatre and surprisingly it was full of various ages, races, and ethnicities. I wondered at that moment did the viewing audience know what they were going to see or were they here for the A-Listers in the large font on the poster? Were they here for the train wreck that the Internet has been espousing for the past few months before its release? (I’m attempting to give my fellow hostages, excuse me, patrons, the benefit of knowing their musical theatre history here.) The audience chuckled during some moments, applauded at others (i.e. Jennifer Hudson’s performance), and a few clapped/cheered once the film had concluded. Maybe it’s by proxy of where I live but my experience at movie theatres has always been pleasant and the audience is respectful (aka quiet) even when I wish they wouldn’t be at times.
So, I’ve been stalling long enough, prolonging your anticipation of what the ‘experience’ of the film version of Cats was. Well, it was…the uncanny valley coupled with the horrific anthropomorphism of people-cats, not cat people. There is a huge difference! Captain Amelia from Disney’s Treasure Planet (2002) is a cat-person. Dr. Kat Manx from Power Rangers S.P.D. is a cat-person. And I’m going to be cheeky with this last one, Catwoman is a cat-person. The semi-cat bodies with human faces, human hands, and human feet, instead of humans with cat faces, painted appendages, and paws from the musical clashed greatly during moments where there was supposed to be intense moments of emotional weight instead of being usurped by cringe-inducing stretches of eldritch levity. These people cats are everything that every single reviewer on the globe has espoused them to be: monstrosities of the highest order.
At times during this review I’m going to intermix the names of the cats with their actors or vice versa so bare with me.* The film begins with the only human being in the film, a woman, driving quickly and erratically to a destination unknown. It’s actually, as the film visually implies and outright states the (eerily deserted) city of London, wherein this human woman is trying desperately to get rid of this person-cat named Victoria. Tied hastily into a bag and thrown into the street, squealing tires fleeing the scene is the last we see or hear of any humans. The opening musical number Jellicle Cats slowly begins as the silhouettes of catlike figures emerge from the shadows of garbage cans and rubbish piles to free the Victoria cat from her burlap prison. The musical number coupled with Victoria’s frightful wonder at these other cat-beings is like a formal induction onto the Island of Dr. Moreau’s scientific experiments. They sing, dance, and welcome Victoria with open paws…well, hands. There’s only one scene where claws are extended and that’s in antagonism and those CGI nails looked so good. I said, oooh gorgeous! If only the rest of the ‘cat’ that sported them looked half as good.
The film and musical’s premise is this, once a year a Jellicle Ball is held for one cat to be chosen and reborn into a new life via the Heaviside Layer. What is a Jellicle Cat or Ball for that matter, you may ask? Well, it’s being ostentatious and unnecessarily cruel and cliquish for starters, just ask Grizzabella Hudson the Glamor Cat. Second, it’s having a class system that defines cats with listicles instead of redeeming personalities. Of course, there’s a hierarchy in the pits of Hades, Dante even said so. Third, the proceedings are the longest single episode of Twilight Zone ever adapted: five (cat) characters in search of an exit. Throughout this film, I kept hearing Aretha Franklin’s iconic words in my head, “okay, uh…great gowns, beautiful gowns.” Aretha was ironically enough asked about Taylor Swift, Adele, and the state of singing/performing Divas a few years ago and that was how she responded about the state of tolerable mediocrity in the music industry. This assessment of widespread musical packaging can easily be applied to the state of many forms of media now, but I digress. Actually, I won’t digress because this film almost costs 100 million dollars and the CGI is garish, uninspiring (except for the cityscapes), and the mistakes made in the digital editing process are unfathomable for this widespread release, which I’ve now learned was rushed to boot.
Sigh, where was I? Oh, that’s right back to the Jellicle abominations. McCavity cat Elba wants to keep all of the other cats from reaching the Heaviside Layer, by employing trickery and magic? Okay…there was only one magical cat named Mr. Mistoffelees that I remember explicitly from the musical (whose still in this adaptation might I add) but I knew that was his thing and now its another cat’s thing too. It made for messy moments narratively where they tried to cheer on one magical cat to save the other cats from the Voldemort of cats. McCavity Elba hangs out in the periphery of the frame like a pop-up ad, shiny and enticing but ultimately a virus in digital clothing. The suit he wears was elegant and sleek I thought, very Tex Avery cartoon wolf’s suit-ish, but my god when the clothes came off and the horrendous non-cat body underneath with Elba’s head on top was revealed…I was repulsed. There aren’t many things that repulse me but that, plus the mice with baby faces, and the cockroaches running amok at the forefront of a musical number was repugnant. The cats in people clothing scenario were used sparingly for various characters and it was very effective at actually adding layers to the visual and musical storytelling and it would have been a wonderful choice if the same had been applied for all of the cast but alas most were darting about ‘furry’.
A cat in tap shoes performed by a seasoned tap dancer, with train engineer overalls and a conductor’s hat were inspired choices but Taylor Swift’s nude-furry body with dancing heels was jarring to the extreme. Not only because she’s one of the worst performative dancers that’s asked to dance but there’s a balance that must be maintained in capturing surrealism, the abstract, or the anthropomorphic and this movie just was pulled in too many visual directions for any of it to be cohesive. Akin to the clones in Watchmen, the cats (and this movie) need to be given a purpose for existence. What else before I conclude? (Oh, let me look at my notes here and let me tell you there are many.) The film tried to be cute with its ‘fat as funny’ character jokes that fell flat because they’re outdated and couched in mean spirited tokenism. There was a castration joke tucked in for giggles (because the Rum Tum Tugger cat can sing high notes) even though all the cats look sexless and/or genderless at times…but all of the cats yowl in a high pitch in the place of jubilation? So your ‘joke’ was medically inappropriate and slightly homophobic, golly gee fun for the whole family. I heard sniffling if not outright sobbing during Jennifer Hudson cat’s climactic song towards the end at least. The character establishing moments with the genteel Victoria cat and Grizzabella’s story was executed surprisingly well. Last question, What is the Heaviside Layer and why is it? What kind of escape hatch exists outside of this Black Mirror and what kind of non-existence are these poor people-cats living inside of this London apocalypse 28 Days Later? On a positive note Cats is a great horror movie, the creators just didn’t tell the advertisers that.