CATS Is the Movie Musical Everyone Knew It Could Be

…and that’s exactly what’s wrong with it

I feel I should start off this review with the disclosure that since we both made our debut on Earth in the same year, I’m indeed as old as Cats. Yet miraculously I’ve managed to avoid virtually anything and everything having to do with the show thanks to my pop culture tendencies laying on the other side of the spectrum. Still, the musical made sure I was aware of its existence. When James Van Der Beek hosted SNL back in 1998, he took part in a skit which was set backstage in the Broadway theatre where Cats was still running. The joke of it all was that everyone, from the cast to the stage hands, had been doing the show for eons and were over it, save for Van Der Beek, who as a new cast member was ecstatic about being in Cats.

Even without much knowledge, I got that Cats was a musical which, although a mainstay, had become a bit of a punchline. I finally got the full gist of what Cats had become a few years later when I watched Six Degrees of Separation, in which Will Smith’s con artist character convinces a wealthy Manhattan couple played by Stockard Channing and Donald Sutherland that he is the son of Sidney Poitier and that his “father” will soon be bringing Cats to the big screen. “Someone is directing a movie version of Cats?” Channing’s character asks with a quiet astonishment. It’s an ongoing joke which occasionally pops up throughout the movie. After finally seeing the actual movie version of Cats, from director Tom Hooper, it’s suddenly become one of the funniest lines ever uttered in the history of cinema.

In case you didn’t know (because, actually I didn’t), the story of Cats deals with a group of feline characters who live in the alleys of London, each dreaming of a better life. The chance for such a dream to come true is found in a ball/talent show where the collection of cats (Francesca Hayward, Rebel Wilson, James Corden, Jennifer Hudson, Judi Dench, Idris Elba, Ian McKellan, Taylor Swift, and others) sing and dance in an effort to win the coveted prize of getting a new life.

Cats has two sides to it. One of them is bad. Just how bad? Well, that’s for each individual audience member unfortunate enough to be sitting in that theater to say. But one thing that’s for sure, it’s worse than anyone could have imagined. The story, or what little there is of one, is retained for the most part; and from what I’ve been told, it’s pretty faithful to the original material. But Hooper’s version is drowning in a pop-like prism as it tries to be everything including a horror story, a tale of romance, a comedy, a drama, a movie for kids, a movie for adults, and (lastly) a musical. If it succeeds in the latter, it’s by default…and only just.

Every musical number (save for one) is so mishandled and awkwardly performed, trying to fly by on the popularity of the cast and sparkly, glittery trappings in an incredibly sad effort to pretend this isn’t just a very expensive session of stars doing musical theater karaoke. As for the rest of the genres it tries to embody, Cats continues to clunk and stumble thanks to one bad choice after another, including an oversexualized Wilson, who bumps and grinds and spreads her fur-lined legs with all her might, and a sadly game Dench, who bravely soldiers on speak-singing well into the film’s final moments (the fact that Hooper asks this of someone with her limited range and accomplished stature is appalling).

The bright spot is that Cats has already found life with lovers of “so bad, it’s good” cinema. Corden’s number is deliriously hammy (surprising no one), and the chorus line of cockroaches with human faces which sing and dance before being devoured by Wilson needs to be seen to be believed. Finally, Swift’s glorified cameo is camp fabulous, with the pop tart strutting her stuff in a pair of incredible heels in her ode to the movie’s villain. Much in the way many embraced “Sweet Transvestite” back in the day, I’m sure there’s a whole generation yet to come who will the appreciate the strange gaudiness the number provides. Yet as much as Cats reaches the decadent heights of glorious pop badness, the astounding flip side is that it’s also an incredibly boring movie.

For every cat writhing around in sexual wantonness, there’s another crying out about the tragedies of life through some operatic number. It’s all so very grand and endlessly dull thanks to the wooden approach taken by the chopless Hooper. I can only presume that the original text contained a great amount of pathos and commentary on the outcasts of society who are searching for another life and another chance. Themes of class, desperation and redemption may have all been present in the original material, but are sadly lost by the time this hollow, over-produced movie reaches the big screen; and by the time the “winner” of the contest ascends into the air in what looks like a cross between a hot air balloon and a chandelier, nobody who is still awake actually cares.

What is there to say about this admittedly talented, but needlessly wasted cast? Although each big name on screen here has proven his/her worth and capabilities in front of audiences for years, Cats makes them look like nothing but overpaid amateurs. Corden, Wilson, and Swift are so blatantly miscast, you would almost feel sorry for them if it wasn’t for the fact that it’s their own fault they’re in this mess to begin with. Meanwhile, Hooper and the beast of a movie he’s created diminish the talents of Dench, Elba, and McKellan by saddling them with roles which give them very little to do that’s actually worthy of their time and abilities. Only Hudson, tasked with delivering the iconic “Memory,” walks away unscathed. Her rendition of the timeless classic is one of the greatest testaments to her unrivaled singing voice and gives a real hint at what everyone believed they were creating here.

I haven’t touched much on the technical aspects of Cats, and that’s because there’s plenty that’s already been said about them, almost all of which is true. The CGI-heavy fur that drapes the cast is as off-putting as it was back when the first trailer dropped, and the green screen-happy set is so overly stylized, it very quickly looks to give Alice in Wonderland a run for its money. Lastly, even if the pacing is swift enough so that no song goes on longer than it should (although most go on longer than the audience would like), Cats thankfully never reaches the 2-hour mark.

From Lucille Ball’s Mame, to Chris Columbus’s safe, distant take on Rent, to the swiftly-forgotten update of Fame, the film world isn’t short on movie musical misfires. It’s hard to say what the fate of Cats will be. In our current hate-watch society, the movie is almost certain to be a hit; but while some fondly remember Rent, and others count Lucy as the superior Mame, it’s almost a guarantee that beyond a number of drunken, ecstasy-fueled viewings by those lucid enough to hit play, Cats will eventually be put down.

Previous post The Archivist #113: MR. NICE GUY Extended Cut is a Treat For Jackie Chan Fans
Next post Two Cents Bashes Zombies and Belts Showtunes Alongside ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE