Me as a teenager seeing Cats on Broadway (1986): “This is terrible. Easily one of the dumbest, weirdest, most incoherent and pointless things I've ever seen.”
Tom Hooper's Cats movie (2019): “Hold my beer.”
Cats is gloriously awful – the kind of picture where you stare at the screen for two hours, wondering what in the hell you're watching. Admittedly, there's some perverse entertainment value in that, although it in no way mitigates just how bad the movie is. I happened to screen the original release version, the one without the improved special effects. So many felines with human hands! Of course, that's the least of the problems.
The movie opens with a young cat, Victoria (Francesca Hayward), being dumped into a filthy alley. A bunch of other cats more or less welcome her into their society. They talk of an elderly cat named Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) who will choose one cat to be reborn into a new life at the “Jellicle Ball.” A key contender is Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson), who used to have a great life and is now discarded. However, the evil, scheming Macavity (Idris Elba) wants the honor for himself, and he'll stop at nothing to get it, including using never-explained magical powers that allow him to beam other cats onto a barge in the middle of the Thames river. Don't ask me, I don't get it either.
The all-star cast also includes Rebel Wilson as Jennyanydots, R&B singer Jason Derulo as Rum Tum Tugger, Ian McKellen as Gus the Theater Cat, and Taylor Swift as Bombalurina.
All the nonsense about the Jellicle Ball is really just a hook. Cats has no proper story to speak of. Most of it is different cats coming forward to introduce themselves to Victoria via song. One after another, they arrive, sing, and then shuffle off into the background. Despite them all prattling on about themselves, we never feel as though we get to know any of them because, again, the movie is 50% introductions.
With no actual plot and no character development, Cats has nothing to offer other than a string of bizarre, over-conceptualized musical numbers, several of which are obviously staged in front of a green-screen. There's one in a kitchen where Jennyanydots treats her companions to a feast of roaches (when she's not scratching herself). There's one where Bombalurina gets everyone high on catnip while riding on a glowing half-moon. One cat, Bustopher Jones (James Corden), sings and dances while rooting through a garbage can and feasting on trash.
Hooper (Les Miserables) relies so heavily on fancy camera movements, oversized sets, glitzy camera angles, and in-your-face CGI that it's like having someone screaming “LOOK HOW MAGICAL THIS IS!” in your ear the whole time. The look of Cats can only be described as visually aggressive. When combined with the utter lack of substance, the effect is bludgeoning, and more than a little hallucinogenic.
There is something deeply disturbing about the appearance of the characters. Seeing so many recognizable singers and actors with CGI fur and ears embedded onto them is far creepier than the filmmakers likely intended. They do not resemble felines so much as weird, vaguely furry alien beings. Onstage, the actors moved in cat-like ways. Here, everyone dances in a variety of styles, ranging from ballet to hip-hop, further undermining the illusion.
Consequently, the stars are placed in an embarrassing situation. Consider poor Jennifer Hudson, who has nothing to do except come onscreen and sing “Memory” twice. She's supposed to provide unearned “heart.” Saddled with that thankless task, Hudson has no choice but to emote shamelessly, while sporting a ridiculous not-quite-a-cat look. It's a no-win situation for her or anyone else.
Every second of Cats is trying to dazzle the audience with how big, audacious, and grand it can be. Nothing is done simply when it can be blown way out of proportion instead. Hooper takes such an approach in service of source material that's, shall we say, non-traditional to begin with. Add everything together and you get a colossal fiasco.
Yeah, it's fascinating in a trainwreck kind of way, and viewers who enjoy a genuine WTF? experience may derive some pleasure from the film. I'll admit that I did. Unintentional laughter and frequent eye-rolling in disbelief are not what anyone associated with Cats intended, though.
out of four
Cats is rated PG for some rude and suggestive humor. The running time is 1 hour and 50 minutes.