Don’t know anything whatsoever about the musical? This review’s for you
When my editor asks if I enjoyed the film Cats, I don’t really know how to answer. It’s a question akin to “do you like therapy?” or “do you enjoy taking too many psychedelic mushrooms?”—situations that aren’t enjoyable in the moment, but stick with you for days afterward.
Before seeing the movie, I didn’t know anything about Cats, but I—like everyone else—had watched the trailer with a mix of glee, horror and wonder. I couldn’t take my eyes off the uncanny (uncatty?) images of CGI-augmented, Dr. Moreau-ian human-cat hybrids. Was this one big joke on the actors in the film (Idris Elba, Jennifer Hudson, Ian McKellen, Dame Judi Dench) or the audience?
Yet, I was enthralled. How could a film like this get made? In an age where big event movies are so streamlined and safe, the Cats trailer offered something new. It looked like nothing else, and I had to give props to a film that was so confident in delivering such a nightmare. Of course I was going to see Cats, if only to satisfy my own morbid curiosity.
Now the question: Will a person with no prior knowledge about Cats—the very popular musical or the T.S. Eliot poems on which it’s based—enjoy the film?
In short: no.
Cats is, objectively, not a good film. It’s also strangely boring. The plot is mostly just introducing us to new cats, all of whom are competing at the Jellicle Ball to be chosen as the cat that ascends to heaven to be reincarnated (replace cats with humans in this scenario and it’s a pretty horrific cult movie), so those who are unfamiliar with the source material spend the majority of movie waiting for the movie to start. Many times throughout the screening, I caught myself thinking “what’s the point?”—not just about the movie, but about my life and humanity as a whole, too. Just think: after 4,000 years of evolution, humans have produced Cats.
Also, I’m not anti-musical, but the songs in Cats begin to sound the same after a short time, and when paired with the overwhelming visuals, the whole experience becomes mind-numbing. I believe that the human mind was not meant to endure a spectacle like Cats, and it shuts down into some sort of survival mode as a defense.
The world of Cats is also confusing. If it’s ostensibly set in our world, then why are all the businesses called “The Meow Club,” “Catsino” and “The Milk Bar”? Are these establishments built for the cats? Did the cats build them? Have humans lost dominion over these singing and dancing creatures, and as a result, established an economic district based on the preconceived idea of what cats like in an attempt to appease these felines? I also couldn’t help wondering how bad that street smells.
So, no, Cats is not good.
However, the film is so audacious that I have not been able to stop thinking about it since walking out of the theater. It’s an easy film to mock, but it’s also singular and—dare I say?—visionary. A train wreck, yes, but a visionary train wreck.
Take the film’s off-putting sexiness, for example. Only a film produced during the Hays Code era could feel so explicit without showing anything. These cats slink around, wild-eyed, and horned up for each other at every musical break. There’s a scene where they all chant in a graveyard and for a second I thought it was going to turn R-rated. And whoever did the CG on the cats’ butts must have been really proud of their work.
Speaking of the CGI, it is upsetting, but I dug it. It’s the epitome of the Nietzsche quote: “If thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.” I like the idea that looking at these cats is to look into and recognize the darkness within ourselves.
I’m also a proud/insufferable cat dad, and I loved the subtle ways that the film captured cat behavior. When the train cat Skimbleshanks starts tap dancing, for example, the other cats stare at his shoes with such intense focus that I couldn’t help but yearn for a spray bottle in case they suddenly attacked. Also, watching McKellen stop mid-conversation to perversely rub his cheek against a wooden support might be the best thing I’ve seen in a film this year. I could tell by the chuckling from the woman sitting next to me wearing cat ears enjoyed these scenes as well.
Ultimately, I’m glad Cats exists. Future historians will be able to look back and pinpoint the exact moment when the cinema-going public threw up its hands and yelled “no holds barred!” I know it will be pored over by trash movie aficionados, and become a staple at darkened living room screenings for years to come. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see revisionist think pieces titled “In Defense of Cats” in ten years. For better or worse, Cats is unforgettable, and I’ve tried really, really hard to forget it.