Starting right meow.
What is the musical Cats about? Apparently, no one knows. Prior to the screening, I asked several people if they had seen it or knew what it was about. The answers I got were, “No” and “I-ah-uh.” Based on my informal survey, most people have never seen Cats and those that have had it wiped from their memories. To be fair, its Broadway run ended in 2000, but plenty of lesser versions have continued to this day, so surely someone still remembers something about it beyond people dancing around dressed as cats.
Thinking my survey was too small of a sample size, I turned to the trusty old Internet and Googled “cats the musical.” Here were some of the top search hits after the Wikipedia page:
“Cats review: The movie Cats doesn’t even know what the musical is about.” -Vox
“Cats is as Terrible as the Internet Guessed it Might Be.” -Wired
“Cats: A Broadway Musical Adaptation Straight Outta the Litter Box.” -Rolling Stone
“Tom Hooper’s Cats Is Uniquely Strange and Compelling.” -The Atlantic
“Cats movie review: The new adaptation of the musical is a void of horny confusion.” -Slate Magazine
And my personal favorite: “Cats the musical will not help you understand Cats the movie.” -AV Club
While a couple of these articles barely mentioned the plot, or lack thereof, the majority of them made a point of talking about the musical containing the thinnest of plots and the film is no better. Like the people I spoke with, the authors of the articles all seem to agree that the film is about cats and…nothing much else. That it really is nothing more than a bunch of people singing and dancing around as cats. Now that I have seen the film, I can confirm that I still haven’t the slightest idea why these people are singing and dancing around as cats.
What is a Jellicle cat? The film starts out with the main theme song being belted out while a cat named Victoria (Francesca Hayward) is unceremoniously dumped in an alley by the sole human in the film. Cats dance and sing and repeat the word jellicle over and over and over, each time causing me to ask “are they saying jellicle?” This became the dominant question in my brain, repeating itself over and over and over. My best guess was that jellicle was just a breed of cat. Later, Victoria confesses to Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) that she doesn’t know if she is jellicle. Not a jellicle, just jellicle. Definitely not a breed and, wait…Old Deuteronomy? Did you just hear something pop? I swear I heard something pop.
After the jellicle (PLEASE MAKE IT STOP!!!) song is over, a cat dressed like a pimp, Macavity (Idris Elba), has a quick conversation with Victoria, then disappears. The other cats all come back out and the film becomes a series of songs in which a certain cat is introduced and described. Somewhere along the way, I recall a mention of the Jellicle Ball, in which a cat is chosen to be reborn and I thought maybe the plot was going to turn out to be an explanation of a cat’s nine lives. Nope. Just more songs about characters like Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo), Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson), Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson), Bustopher Jones (James Corden), Bombalurina (Taylor Swift), Mr. Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson), Munkustrap (Robbie Fairchild), and Gus (Ian McKellan). The names alone are enough to make you think Dune is easier to follow, but, wait…Gus? Do you smell smoke? I swear I smell smoke.
The truly maddening thing is that everything in the film seems completely random. At no point does anyone ever explain what characteristics or skills or traits are used to determine the ball winner, or even what makes a cat eligible. Age, singing voice, fur color, magical powers, dancing acumen, sexy meow – beats me. Eventually, we learn that Macavity is kidnapping all of the competition in an attempt to rig the contest to the point where he is the only one left, except there are still dozens of cats left. Maybe because they don’t get a special song, they aren’t eligible, but again – I-ah-uh.
At this point, the only coherent thought I had left was to wonder why Jennifer Hudson chose to (or was directed to) cry her way through all three of her scenes. And I don’t mean like a couple of tears, I mean snot running out of her nose, ugly baby crying. Yet, her singing still sounded amazing, which is far more than this film deserves. But it also sums up this film rather nicely.
For all of the solid singing and interesting visuals, the film squanders its few positives with its lack of plot and poor production qualities. The Vox article mentioned above does a great job of breaking down the failures in direction. For me, the special effects were the biggest problem with the film. While the fur and digital costumes looked great, they looked completely out of sync with the actors through much of the film. Many of the cat movements looked terrible and completely unrealistic (even in its own context) and it looked as if some of the actors’ faces were digitally pasted onto the bodies of different dancers (Munkustrap more so than anyone). Without an actual plot to follow, the viewer can’t help but notice the other poor qualities of the film, making it that much worse for the audience.
Surprisingly, I did not hate this movie. On most nights, I would have seethed at a movie that is a pile of garbage by most measures. Maybe it’s because I was hoping it would be an all-around disaster, but the quality of the singing and earnest performances from the actors not named Wilson and Corden (bad kitties!!) – not to mention McKellan kind of phoning it in – made it just a mostly-disaster. It was close though, especially with the bizarre ending sending a cat off to the Heavyside Layer in a hot-air balloon and Dench breaking the fourth wall at the end with a dreadful number lecturing the audience on how cats are not dogs. At least now I know that jellicle is, wait…Heavyside Layer?
Rating: Ask for all of your money back, even those of you who love the musical.