Cats (2019)

JANUARY 13, 2020


I wasn't planning on writing about Cats, because it's not a horror movie (no, I'm not going to joke around and dub it as one, even if the characters unsettlingly resemble humans with fur more than the cats they're supposed to be), but I changed my mind after I had a sorta nightmare about it after my viewing. Not a scary dream per se, but since I very rarely dream about movies I just saw, I found it interesting that my subconscious was still trying to process what I just saw. Indeed, the dream was basically about me being in the theater, trying to comprehend the film's narrative, at one point digging behind the screen where all the "gears" were (I mean, it was still a dream, so part of it made no goddamn sense) to make sure they weren't at fault for the weird nonsense on-screen.

When I woke up, I naturally had no better idea of what the point of the movie was, but it did get me thinking more about WHY the movie didn't work on any level. During my viewing I just laughed along with the rest of the crowd and struggled to get my bearings on the thing, without putting too much thought into why I was finding it so impenetrable, as I needed my complete brainpower just to keep up and even that wasn't enough. The dissection came later, at which time I realized that a huge part of the problem is that the movie never once calms down long enough to allow a viewer to step back and say "OK, this is what this world is, and this is how it works." Instead, you're just tossed into it (almost literally, as the closest thing the movie offers to an audience surrogate is introduced when its owner throws it on the street in a sack) and all of the movie's insanely high number of cats instantly start dancing and singing, and they never stop until the movie is over.

Yes, it's a "sung-through" musical, not one that has isolated songs between otherwise normal scenes. The longest pause (no, I will NOT say "paws", and damn you for thinking I would) is maybe 20 seconds, usually for a character to react to a song for a beat before starting their own. This can be a hurdle for any show if you're not prepared and have your ears properly tuned into the vocals, so perhaps people who are familiar with the stage version weren't as thrown off by the movie's idea of rhythm, but I, a total a newcomer, found it nearly impossible to focus on the lyrics. Why? Because Tom Hooper is a godawful director who never once makes the right choice with his camera and editing, so while a cat is singing about this or that, he's haphazardly cutting to other cats, moving his camera all over the place, and generally making it a god-level challenge to know exactly what we should be paying attention to, what's important, etc.

I should note for people who are just as unfamiliar with this particular show that there is no traditional plot on Broadway; from what I've gathered after reading up on it (again, in an attempt to understand it) is that the play basically has the same thrust as the movie, in that it's little more than a series of "scenes" in which a new cat is introduced, sings a song, and is then whisked away by the villainous Macavity (Idris Elba), who figures he can guarantee ascending to the "Heaviside Layer" (reincarnation/heaven kinda place, except one they all want to go to) by removing all of the other "Jellicle" cats from contention. That choice is made by Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench), their leader I guess, and she isn't having much of Macavity's shit. So the cats have to stop him and get back so she can make the right call, and I assure you, the way I've described it makes it sound more involving than it is.

The movie bulks up the role of Victoria, one of the background cats in the play. She's the one being tossed off at the beginning, and for about 13 seconds it seems like the movie will be about her learning about this world, becoming something important, and maybe even being chosen herself, or at least having some part to play in the decision. That the play is so plotless that they felt they had to invent a main character for the adaptation was probably the first sign that maybe they shouldn't adapt it in the first place, but maybe it could have worked with a competent filmmaker behind it. Instead, they got Hooper, whose aforementioned directorial ADD undoes the material at every turn. Lead character or not, when you're at a play you have a fixed view on the proceedings, and stage lighting/the confined stage can assure you're focused and not being pulled in seven directions at once. You have no such ability here - Hooper can't even bother to keep from breaking the 180 rule, so their attempts at making it something accessible via Victoria fall completely flat, and after a while she's basically the same background player she was in the source material. When we first meet her she is told Cats have three names, their normal one (that'd be Victoria), their Jellicle one, and a secret one... and that's all there is to that, as she's never referred to by anything else.

If anyone knows one thing about Cats it's probably "Memory", but what they might not know is that the character who sings it is barely seen beforehand (at least, that's the case here - the movie is only 100 minutes whereas the stage show is over two hours, so some stuff got lost), so the song is really doing the heavy lifting there, because it's not particularly moving with regards to the character since we have such a minimal connection to her at that point (it'd be like if Audrey and Seymour sang "Suddenly Seymour" before Audrey II even showed up). Ironically, one of the few other bright spots is Victoria's "Beautiful Ghosts", a new song written for the movie - I can't help but wonder if the thing would have worked if they had taken the basic concept and the best songs and basically started over with a collection of new tunes and an actual plot to tie them together. Instead it's mostly just noise, with occasional moments of relative high quality. Unfortunately, in my opinion anyway, the best songs are near the end, by which point you've probably long given up. Sure, it's good that the most intolerable numbers (Rebel Wilson's and James Corden's) are gotten out of the way early, but when you add that to the aforementioned "you're just thrown into this thing" problem it might be too much to recover from for the average person.

The other huge problem is that the scale of the cats keeps changing, and none of the incarnations ever make any sense. I thought it was just a world run by cats (like how Pixar's Cars is run by cars), but an unseen human drops Victoria off, and later a pair of "bad" cats have her join them as they break into a house, only for the absent owners' dog to realize they're there and try to burst through the door of the bedroom they're ransacking. So they're essentially the same as housecats, but their size compared to the household objects and furniture is closer to that of mice - which is made even more confusing by how big they look compared to the actual mice (also humans in suits) when they show up a few times. Again, the movie never lets you understand how it works on a base level; it's one thing to have specific questions about how this or that would play out in this strange world, but to be kept in the dark about all of its "rules" is simply insane.

Long story short, it constantly feels like you missed the scene before the one you're currently watching, and that continues until the very end, which is actually impressive but doesn't make the movie good by any means. But it's not "so bad it's good" kind of stuff like The Room or Birdemic, either; apart from a few botched FX (yes, even in this upgraded version you still see Judi Dench's ring in a few shots) it's competent on a technical level, and actually doesn't have too many laugh out loud moments that spring from terrible decision making. The performers give it their all (Ian McKellen in particular nails it) despite their hideous costumes and some of the songs are actually catchy, but it can never settle into a groove, because Hooper is too terrible a filmmaker to reign anything in and find one. Exhausting maybe is a better word for it. Again, I suspect it might work better for those who are familiar with the story/songs already and just want to see what it's like in a different format, but I think everyone can agree that this was a misguided project at best. I'm glad I saw it for myself, but it's not even really worth ironic "let's laugh at this" kind of viewing - it's like an actual car crash in that you maybe can't look away but in reality wish never happened in the first place and hope only the guilty parties (Hooper, in this case) suffer from it.

What say you?

P.S. Hilariously, the Drafthouse showed an old PSA about safety from the cast of the Broadway show, and it's possibly a bad idea as it just shows how much better the usual costumes are than whatever it is Hooper was going for here.


  1. Great analysis. I am personally terrified of even seeing this film. I fear that it could be the thing that drives me 'round the bend into full insanity.

  2. Not sure if this is a brit only colluquialism but I really don't think a cat gets tossed off in the movie.....


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