My roommate, Rita, decided to punish me for not being lazy enough by making me watch Cats with her. I think she was looking for an excuse to rope me into it. Anyway, I knew I wasn’t going to like the movie, because I read the reviews and I saw parts of the Broadway play on YouTube. I actually went through a phase where I watched/ read bad reviews of this poor movie for fun. (What that says about me, I don’t know.) But, at any rate, I finally saw Cats, so I can have an opinion.
Let’s just say, I’m not a fan.
Cats is the 2019 movie adaptation of the Broadway play of the same name, popular in the 1980s. A recently abandoned cat named Victoria (Francesca Hayward) finds herself in the midst of a tribe of Jellicle cats who are having their Jellicle ball. One cat will be chosen by Old Deuteronomy (Judy Dench) to ascend to the Heaviside Layer, where they will be reborn into a new life. While cats sing and dance and make their case, an evil cat named Macavity (Idris Elba) kidnaps the participants for his own nefarious purpose. Meanwhile Victoria befriends Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson), an old glamour cat who has been ostracized by the Jellicles and wishes for acceptance and a better life.
If my summary makes it sound like Cats has a plot, I apologize, because it really does not. Cats is an excuse for song and dance--dance, mostly. Aside from “Memory,” the one song everyone knows, and “Beautiful Ghosts,” the new Taylor Swift song embedded in the movie, most of the songs are adapted from T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.” These poem-songs are whimsical, but don’t really have the emotional highs and lows. For most of the movie, the cats introduce themselves. The dancing is good, but, honestly, I don’t like dancing much, and I get bored of straight singing. I watch movies for stories. I like plot and character. This was why I was against watching the movie. I already knew there was not going to be a plot, and without a plot, why even bother?
It turned out I wasn’t as bored as I thought I’d be, but not for the right reasons. There were so many story errors and questionable artistic choices, that my writer’s brain went into overdrive analyzing the mistakes and trying hard to fix them. By the end I was alternating between screaming into my pillow and bursting into uncontrollable laughter. At least Cats made me feel something. I can’t fault the movie for that.
I saw the CGI cat-human hybrids in the trailer, and, in the trailer, I didn’t mind. It was weird, but so what? During the movie’s opening number, however, the CGI disturbed me. In the shadows, on all fours, the silhouettes looked cat-like. But when I saw the actors’ bodies, I couldn’t help but see how human they were, ears, tails, and fur aside. The dancers moved gracefully, but they still moved like humans, especially when they were on their hands and knees. My brain felt very confused. This only last for a few minutes, and then I got over the “culture shock.” There were other things, far worse things, to occupy my brain. The lack of transitions, for example.
Cats starts off with Victoria getting tossed out of a car in a sack, and as soon as she’s out of the bag, the alley cats break into song. Our protagonist hasn’t said a single word or even had time to react to her abandonment, when suddenly she’s thrust into the Jellicle world. What is the Jellicle world? No one knows. But the cats all sing about being Jellicle cats, very aggressively. After the opening number, I thought they’d take a breath to explain the story. But no, Victoria barely has time to say her name, when the cast begin an eerie spoken song about the naming of cats.
In the original musical (again, I saw the first few minutes of it), “The Naming of Cats” song was a kind of a transition. In the Broadway version, there was no abandoned Victoria; the cats sang to the audience, trying to let us humans into their world. Telling humans about how a cat had three names made sense, because it was something a cat would know that a human would not. Telling it to another cat made no sense, because the cat should already know, unless this cat was somehow different from other cats.
But how is Victoria different? Was she young and needed to be taught this from her cat elders? Was she too sheltered due to time spent with humans? Is it only the Jellicle cats who have three names? What makes a Jellicle cat? A transition could serve to explain these things. Or better yet, cut the song entirely and replace it with dialogue. The few instance of dialogue in Cats are mostly in service of cringe-inducing puns that do nothing to advance the story and aren’t funny.
But this is the tip of the “no transitions” iceberg. You see, without pause to give context to… anything, our blank-slate protagonist gets pushed into one song number after the other. And with each song comes a new set. The whole entourage of cats enters human houses and human businesses, with no explanation of where the humans are and barely enough time to see how the cats go from one place to the next. I had no idea if these were actual places or if they existed in the cats’ imagination. For example, the human home looks like a regular houses, but then you’d go to a “milk bar,” which looked like a soda shop but with milk, because… cats? Toward the end of the song, a new cat would prominently appear, and as the song finished, that new cat would grab Victoria and sweep her onto the next song/ set. It was dizzying.
One of the first songs is sung by Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson), and this is one of many instances where the lyrics don’t really match what’s going on. But that’s okay, because there is so much WTF stuff going on that you can barely pay attention to the music. At one point, sexualized cockroaches with human faces dance around a tiered cake before Jennyanydots swoops in and eats one. At another point, Jennyanydots takes off her skin, to reveal the same body but in purple jumper thing and (this is what gets me) bedazzled gems on her fur. It’s insane.
Apparently, the movie decided to add “comedy” to the stage show by fat-shaming the two overweight cats, Jennyanydots and Bustopher Jones (James Cordon). Both engage in physical slapstick and take undignified tumbles. At one point, Bustopher Jones tears through bins of disgusting garbage, which is odd, because, to an ally cat, shouldn’t it look more like appetizing? These two characters are so bad that even Rita, a fan of the movie, completely disowned them and gave me leave to openly make fun of them. I couldn’t. My mouth was too busy hanging open, and my brain was on the blink.
Between these two “comedic” bits, there are actual plot points. First, Grizabella appears, watching sadly from a distance, while the other Jellicles gossip behind her back. Here the frantic singing and dancing slowed just long enough to give Grizabella and Victoria a moment. The moment was effective. Genuine emotion was wrung from my heart.
Then they introduced Macavity’s nefarious plot, and the little emotion I had was swept away in a cloud of irritation. I was not annoyed that Macavity has random magic powers--no, I was prepared for that. I was not prepared for Macavity using said powers in the middle of a completely different song. You see, while Bustopher Jones is singing about being fat, Macavity poofs away Jennyanydots. Then, we're back to laughing at the fat cat. Bustopher Jones digs through garbage, and Macavity appears again. I wasn’t even sure Bustopher Jones’s song was done, when Macavity spirited away him, too. No pauses, no transitions, no explanations. Just pure whiplash.
You know, as a writer, one of the hardest things to do is transitions, and it sucks, because if you do them well, no one will notice. But when you see a movie like Cats, with you appreciate how vital transitions really are. Everyone loves the “cool” set pieces (be they song-and-dance numbers or action sequence), but transitions are what mold those big flashy moments into a coherent narrative. Take away that narrative, and that spectacle becomes loud, jarring, and headache-inducing.
After Macavity magics away Bustopher Jones, the other cats scatter, leaving Victoria to get picked up (literally) by a pair of petty-thief calico cats named Rumpleteazer (Naoimh Morgan) and Mungojerrie (Danny Collins). Victoria, being the blind follower that she is, goes along with their tricks and thievery without question. And it was this song and dance number that broke me, ladies and gentlemen, because it was as Victoria sits in an oversized table holding a giant fork and knife in her human hands that I very suddenly realized the main problem I had with Cats.
The director had no vision.
This is a harsh thing to say, but I could draw no other conclusion.
You see, even though Cats was a smash hit on Broadway, it is no easy task to adapt a play to a movie format. A play and a movie are different mediums, and what works for a play and appeals to a theater-going audience will not necessarily work for a movie or appeal to a more mainstream audience. Tom Hooper, the director and one of the credited screenwriters, was tasked with adapting the play, and as a result, he had to make a series of hard decisions. For example, Cats is basically plotless, but a mainstream audience will expect a plot. Do you develop a plot and if so, what will it be? With movies, you have the option of more locations--do you take advantage of that? The cats themselves work in a representative medium, with the costumes and dance suggesting a broad outline of a cat, but how do you translate this into a realistic medium?
Rather than solve these problems, the director slapped out a series of compromises on a moment-to-moment basis that failed to coalesce into any sort of consistent vision. For example, the cats themselves. We know they are humans pretending to be cats, and that, since humans’ bodies are formed differently, they need to move their bodies in a human way (standing upright, for example) that nonetheless show the grace of cats. But why have them hold a fork and knife? Cats don’t do that; they can’t do that. It in no way suggests a cat. Rather, it suggests the lyrics of the song and was most likely a lazy visual tossed in to give the audience something to look at. And if this were the only inconsistency, that would be one thing, but the movie is so rife with inconsistencies, it is impossible to see Cats as anything but a Frankenstein mess of a movie, with the director constantly jolting it with electricity in hopes that it will come to life.
Hence, Cats is neither a play nor a movie, but a half-hearted attempt at both. The cats go to multiple different locations, as in a movie, but each location is a static “stage” with a CGI greenscreen as a backdrop. The movie tries to squeeze in additional “plot” to please movie-goers but is so unwilling to cut songs or change the overall progression of the play that it ends up with a muddled mess of poor pacing and anti-climax. The cats either exist in the literal human world or how the cats see the human world or some alternate dimension or possibly all three at once--the director never decides. The lyrics of the song are interpreted in the most literal possible way, unless the director chooses to ignore them, in which case the visuals don’t match the words. Even the decision to make Victoria an audience avatar gets thrown out the window, when a cat looks into the camera and directly addresses the audience in the last five minutes of the movie.
So after the Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer number, I had officially checked out. I watched the rest of Cats, because I had to, but I had lost the ability to lose myself in its world. The curtain was ripped open and I could see the little man frantically twisting the dials behind it: producers cynically trying to cash in on a hit play, a lack of care from the director, thoughtless writing, a hurried production, and a complete lack of respect for the story all around. The only time I felt affection for Cats was when Jennifer Hudson sang “Memory.” The actors and the dancers really committed, and I could see how, for someone invested in the song-and-dance aspect, that might be enough to make Cats worthwhile. But it wasn’t for me.
Writer. Critic. Dreamer.