Once you forget that it’s an abomination, ‘Cats’ is decent

AHHHHH! Images courtesy Universal Pictures.

1/10 “How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretches whom with such infinite pains and care I have endeavored to form? Their limbs are in proportion, and their features were selected as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! 

“I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing cathood onto these bodies. For this, I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardor that far exceeded moderation, but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart-” writer/director/producer Tom Hooper. 

In Cats, Victoria the White Cat (Francesca Hayward, a ballerina in her first feature role) is unceremoniously dumped by her owner in a cobblestone London alley. She finds herself immediately surrounded by the Jellicle cats, a tribe of strays preparing for a very special night – under the Jellicle Moon, Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench), the tribe’s ancient shaman who is said to have seen the turn of the 20th century, will make the Jellicle choice, deciding which member of their tribe shall be granted the secrets of the mysterious Heaviside Layer before being reincarnated as a new cat.  

From its first trailer, Cats was already cemented as one of the most embarrassing movies of the year. We don’t really need to talk about how awful the visual effects are – I mean, just look at it. The cats are weird. Looking at stills makes me uncomfortable, seeing them move is deeply alarming, and the movie is about watching them dance. You can’t make a good movie about watching things dance if you don’t even want to look at them in the first place. 

Dancing has always been much more important to Cats than music, but there are also some pretty major sound-mixing problems that can’t be ignored. The whole movie is nowhere near as loud as it needs to be, and seems to have run into that common live-to-recorded transition problem where lyrics overpower music. Absolutely the only chance this movie had was to dive head-first into the bombastic absurdity of its own existence, and bombastic it is not. These lyrics were not meant to be mumbled. They only work when they’re being belted out for the back row.

They brought Jennifer Hudson and her gorgeous pipes in to do “Memory,” and then made her sing it while crying at the same time. Why? Why?

You can’t make a good movie, but you could have made a finished movie. At the Dec. 16 New York City premiere, Hooper said he’d put the finishing touches on the film only hours before, and on Dec. 21, two days after the film’s commercial release, Universal notified theaters they would be receiving a new version of the movie with updated visual effects, apparently at Hooper’s request.

By Hooper’s own admission, he finished this movie hours before the red carpet premiere and still wasn’t done. Theaters sold at least $2.6 million worth of tickets to a movie that its own director has now said wasn’t finished. Forget the cats themselves, that’s what’s truly appalling. The update has been compared to the deeply unethical practices of modern video game design, where game makers will release a deliberately unfinished game and demand purchasers pay extra for “unlockable content,” but there’s no way to extort extra money from people who’ve already paid to see this. This is a simple matter of a contractor, hired as far back as May 2016, not getting the job done in time for a December 2019 premiere, and a studio refusing to push the release date back.

The question is why Universal released a movie they knew wasn’t ready, and that’s a question nobody seems to be asking. We’ve seen that a couple of times in recent years, with Disney refusing to budge on release dates for Rogue One and Solo: A Star Wars Story as a way of trying to save face for two very publicly troubled productions, but Cats was refusing to budge from a Dec. 20 release opposite Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, destined by default to be one of the biggest movies of all time, even if it’s horrible and horribly underperforming. We’ve seen Sony, a company much more prone to questionable decision-making than Universal, delay its Sonic the Hedgehog movie over similar character design backlash just after the Cats trailer.

But my instinct is to blame Hooper personally, a director I’ve never liked. He makes boring, bad movies that remain a big deal because The King’s Speech, a boring, bad movie he made 10 years ago, won Best Picture over Black Swan and The Social Network, and now he’s a name director. Until people start asking the right questions, we’re never really going to know who made what decision when, but Hooper is the one who was working on Cats until and past the last minute, he’s reportedly the one who decided to send out a new version and he’s presumably the one who should have made the decision to cut the cord on the Dec. 20 release date a long, long time ago.

The question immediately begged by Cats’ existence is “who thought this movie was ready to be released?” and it turns out, the answer is “no one.” So why is it in theaters? 

They made my beautiful magical boy Mister Mistoffelees into a whimpering Nice Guy who spends the movie following Victoria around begging for her attention and I am not OK.

Hooper’s style is best described as “bafflingly placed realism,” and realism has never been more bafflingly placed anywhere in any medium than it is in Cats. Several musical numbers are shot with a handheld camera, adding a gritty and unpredictable element to a movie with CGI performers bathed in a high-contrast purple and yellow neon colorscheme. He went to handheld a lot in his boring, bad Les Miserables adaptation as well, so we already know that it doesn’t jive at all with semi-diegetic musical numbers even when the actors are real, and it certainly doesn’t jive any better with the fur-covered abominations in Cats. 

It’s a shame the technical issues are so many and so debilitating, because there’s real merit to Cats as an adaptation. With the simple change of having Victoria be a stray who’s being introduced to this tribe of cats as we are, Hooper’s recontextualized the entire story in a way that adds several layers of drama. Instead of – well, in addition to – the vague and uncomfortable sexual charge running throughout, Munkustrap (Robbie Fairchild), the Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo) and the Magical Mister Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson) are fawning over the new girl. The various songs about how cats behave become challenges, questions posed to Victoria as to whether or not she will conform to the Jellicle cats’ values. 

It was clearly made by someone who loved the show and wanted to build it out with a new format. The narrative accomplishments of Cats are purely accomplishments of cinema. It applies the tools that movies have that plays don’t to fill holes in a notoriously sloppy show. 

If you can get used to the alien environment, it’s really not much of a different experience from the show. I find myself bored at around the same point, just after Old Deuteronomy’s introduction, and the music is stuck in my head afterward the way a musical’s ought to be, particularly Taylor Swift’s lusty “Macavity.” 

But, as no mortal can support the horror of these cats’ continence, “used to it” is something none of us will ever be.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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