The Curious Conundrums of CATS.
DIRECTED BY TOM HOOPER / 2019
I have so many questions.
Why do some cats wear clothes, and others do not? What the ding-dong is a ‘jellicle?’ It sounds like one of those gooey cave formations made by glow worms, so I’m not sure why anyone would want to be one. How do the cats know what becomes of the chosen cat? Is it just a lie made up by the cat leader, and this whole thing is just some weird sacrificial rite? How could this show be one of the longest running shows on Broadway? Did director Tom Hooper ever look at the movie he made and ask “What have I done?” Why… Cats?
I had time to ask myself these questions while watching Cats because I was simply bored. I admit to surprise at that because after having seen the trailer earlier this year, dullness was not a sin I expected this film to commit. I was prepared for horrifying, monstrous, and a total dumpster fire. But never disinterest.
Cats is as terrifying as its trailers suggests, at least at first. From the get-go it airdrops you directly into the uncanny valley with its weird human-cat hybrids. Just as you begin to get accustomed to those, they introduce the mice-people. When the shock of those wear off, here comes the cockroaches! None of this is whimsical or cute. It’s like you’re watching the annual musical revue performed by Dr. Moreau’s creations. But even as you get acclimated to the world of Cats there just isn’t anything else to keep you invested.
Did director Tom Hooper ever look at the movie he made and ask “What have I done?”
The plot of Cats, such as it is, concerns itself with a group of cats who gather once a year and hold a contest. The winner of this contest is chosen to be reborn into a new life. Each contestant is introduced, then they come on screen to sing and dance about why they should be chosen. Then the next contestant is introduced and so on and so on. It’s basically American Idol but for the feline set.
There are two wild cards at play in this year’s contest, however. The first is a young cat named Victoria. She’s abandoned by her owner at the beginning of the film and is introduced, along with the audience, into the world of the cats and their contest. She’s young and naive enough not to know what is or isn’t allowed or possible, and her innocence and kind nature throw a few curve balls into the night’s proceedings. The other is her polar opposite, a grizzled villain named Macavity (Idris Elba) who wishes to win this year’s contest and start over in the worst way. He lies, cheats, and behaves badly throughout, and there’s no hint of a squirt gun to stop him.
That brief plot synopsis right there isn’t just Cats in a nutshell, it’s pretty much the whole plot of Cats. A cat is introduced, sings and dances, then the next one comes on. Occasionally, Macavity will appear and do something dastardly. There really isn’t enough story-wise to get us invested in things. The characters aren’t anything more than their introductions make them out to be, and no one goes on any sort of journey. What’s more, the score isn’t very noteworthy (save for maybe “Memory” which was a standard once upon a time). The only thing left that can potentially hook an audience in, are the performances.
No one will ever mistake Cats for a documentary
Happily, many of the performances are amazing. The turns by the bigger ‘names’ in the cast, like Elba, Judi Dench, Taylor Swift, Rebel Wilson, James Corden and Ian McKellan are fine. They’re fine. Jennifer Hudson stands out as a cat who’s seen better days. But the rest of the ensemble are the real stars of this show. Francesca Hayward as Victoria, especially, is real catnip. She moves with a litheness and grace that even real cats would feel jealous of, and she’s capable of some amazing contortions. The dancing and choreography are absolutely incredible, when Hooper pulls the camera back far enough and keeps it still enough to let us watch it, that is.
Cats shares a problem most modern movie musicals (and their close cousin action movies) seem to have: camera work and editing that obscures the very thing the audience wants to see. No one will ever mistake Cats for a documentary, so why shoot with shaky hand-held cameras?
Cats cost a lot of money, and it’s clear that a lot of very talented and capable people put in a lot of effort in making it. I don’t even want to contemplate the number of man-(cat)-hours that went into producing this movie. But it doesn’t add up to anything. Cats has become little more than a twitter joke, and the movie does nothing to rise above that level. How so much time, money, skill, and effort could amount to nothing is perhaps the biggest question of all.