I’ve seen Cats twice now. I think it might be my favorite movie.
It’s terrible. As bad as you’ve heard. Probably worse.
There is not a single second of Cats that doesn’t feel like having hot pokers shoved into your eyeballs and ear holes and up your nostrils into your brain. It’s a Doctor Moreau nightmarescape set to unrelenting nonsensical songs for one hour and forty nine minutes. It’s what I imagine a bad acid trip feels like. It’s a disaster from beginning to end. It’s a dream come true.
There are few things I enjoy more than an awful movie. The list probably goes:
1. The sound of children's laughter
2. A really good taco
3. A disaster of a movie.
Not a disaster movie, a disaster of a movie. A movie that surprises at every turn with weird dialogue, crappy lighting, visible crew equipment, and all around baffling choices. Movies like Troll 2 and The Room, two movies that are beloved for their badness, made by relative amateurs with no money. I've seen both pictures a number of times. I share them with the people in my life I love most. They are treasures. What’s even better though than these small-scale atrocities, is a disaster of a movie that has all the necessary ingredients for prestige. An Academy Award winning director. A stacked cast. A massive budget.
Maybe it’s schadenfreude. Maybe there’s something human and comforting about seeing someone with recorded success fail. Maybe at my core I’m a bad person. But there’s nothing funnier to me than a big, expensive, Oscar-bait movie turning out rotten.
When the Cats trailer premiered last summer, all the trappings of prestige were there. Tom Hooper as director. Idris Elba. Taylor Swift. Ian McKellan. Freaking Judi Dench. A $95,000,000 budget. An entire massive set built to make the actors appear tiny (though not consistently), and a new technology developed specifically for this movie. And it looked so bad. So unbelievably bad.
The day that trailer dropped was one of the best days of 2019.
The internet lost its collective mind. “Why are the cats so small?” some on Twitter asked. “Why do the cats’ tails shoot right out of their butts?” others inquired. “Why is Jason Durelo in this?” still others wanted to know.
And then this very serious behind-the-scenes video from Universal unleashed the phrase “digital fur technology” on the world. It's a phrase that means nothing and says EVERYTHING about what to expect from Cats.
I worried that the overwhelming negative and LOL response might compel Tom Hooper and his Digital Fur Technology Team to adjust the visuals and overall vibe of their forthcoming film. I worried Cats wouldn’t be the disaster the trailer promised.
Then the film premiered, and forty eight hours later, once the press embargo lifted, critics’ reviews started rolling in. And boy were they scathing.
But still I worried. I worried these critics were exaggerating the magnitude of awful Cats delivers. I worried these critics had become carried away in the fun of panning and the movie wouldn't end up being as bad as they claimed.
Then I saw Cats. And I realized, if anything, critics had understated how bad it really is. To my utter delight.
A number of movies moved me to tears in 2019. But only one caused tears of laughter. And it was Cats. Within the first five minutes.
The opening number “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats” features creatures with digitally rendered cat bodies and human faces singing about “Jellicles” and the “Heavyside Layer” and if you think the terms “jellicle” or “heavyside layer” will be explained at any point over the course of the film, you are mistaken.
This first number is so weird, so blindingly technicolor, and so synth heavy circa 1982, I actually had to gasp for air through laughter. It looks like someone’s very first Photoshop project come to life and set to a score made in GarageBand.
After the mind-blowing intro, we meet Jennyanydots in the song “The Old Gumbie Cat” and I’m positive the lyrics are a word-for-word transcription of a 3-year-old’s stream of consciousness.
I have a gumbie cat in mind, her name is Jennyanydots
Her coat is of the tabby kind with tiger stripes and leopard spots
All day she sits beneath the stairs or on the steps or on the mat
She sits and sits and sits and that's what makes a gumbie cat
That's what makes a gumbie cat
Jennyanydots is played by Rebel Wilson, who cannot sing, and the thesis of her number is that Jennyanydots is fat. We’ve come a long way in body positivity as a society. Cats, however, has not.
But the fat-shaming is not the most upsetting part. The most upsetting part features a line of cockroach Rockettes with human faces who perform a tap dance and then become a Gumbie cat snack.
Sometimes I see things that should not exist and I think about the number of people who had to sign off on that thing and I get very confused. While I certainly felt that same confusion throughout this entire movie, I felt it most acutely during this scene. This is a major motion picture from a major studio. Teams and teams and teams worked on it. Hundreds of people. How is it that not a single one of them at any point in production asked “Won’t it be disturbing to see a cat with a human face eat a cockroach with a human face? Should we maybe not do this?”
After feasting on some friends, Jennyanydots switches from Hannibal Lector to Buffalo Bill as she unzips her own fur to reveal a toddler pageant talent portion costume.
After Gumbie Cat there are like 87 more numbers introducing the different cats. Like Rum Tum Tugger, a name created by throwing letter magnets at a fridge. Rum Tum Tugger is played by Jason Derulo.
He's giving the performance way too much sexual energy.
This entire movie is gross in a way that reminds me of waking up to the disorienting sound of cats mating outside my bedroom window, but the song "Rum Tum Tugger" in particular contains an outsized amount hip gyration, crotch shots, and lusty glances.
Next we meet Bustopher Jones, another fat cat played by James Corden who like, yesterday, gave a lecture on his late night show imploring people to be kind to those who struggle with their weight.
Then there’s Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer (sure), and Old Deuteronomy, played by Judi Dench who has to be PISSED with what the Digital Fur Technology team did to her face.
Then there's an original song written for the movie by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Taylor Swift (okay) performed by Victoria who is played by Francesca Hayward, the lead in this musical. Francesca has no vocal talent to speak of. She is a very accomplished dancer, but you see all of two seconds of her dancing because Tom Hooper is so obsessed with closeups that this entire movie is giant cat faces with human noses bobbing around while I guess their bodies are dancing off screen. Every actor in that dumb behind-the-scenes video went on and on about the dance rehearsals and in the end .3 percent of the movie is dancing. If there were any wide shots we would see a lot more, but Tom-Let’s-Get-So-Close-We-See-Every-Pore Hooper is at the helm of this ship. While steering it into an iceberg, he forgot to hire singers for his musical.
Then there’s “Old Theater Cat,” a song about Ian McKellon as a cat, which is probably the least offensive if not a little boring. Then “Skimbleshanks The Railway Cat,” a tap dance number led by Skimbleshanks (fine) along the rail tracks of London and onto a train. It’s in this portion of the film where it becomes clear that no one who worked on Cats has seen a cat in real life. The size of the cats changes in every scene, and not by insignificant amounts. In “Skimbleshanks” the cats are all smaller than a railway track, roughly the size of mice. Earlier, they appear nearly the size of humans. Again, did no one notice? Or did they just not care?
None of these songs do anything to further the plot, because as it turns out, there is no plot. Just a bunch of cats.
Cats like Macavity, a cat so inexplicably important that there’s an entire song about him sung be a separate cat. Taylor Swift cat. She sings this song in what I think she thinks is a British accent.
You’ll notice Taylor Swift has boobs. All the female “cats” do. Even though their bodies are meant to be cat bodies. Bodies that stand upright most of the time and on all fours sometimes for some reason. Also, everyone looks about 15% wider than they actually are. It’s like they used Microsoft Paint to create this movie’s aspect ratio.
Anyway, after Taylor’s intro we see Macavity in all his glory(?).
This is a very naked Idris Elba. Yes, technically he is covered in cat hair with digital fur technology, but it’s more of a sheen than a fluffy covering, and when he removes his fur coat (because he, too, enjoys wearing the skin of his own species?!!!!) it made me very uncomfortable. More uncomfortable than I already was having sat through sixty minutes of Cats.
Then we finally arrive at “Mr. Mistoffelees,” the only song from this musical I knew going in because I had a Best Of Andrew Lloyd Webber CD in sixth grade. I was not a popular child. But the song is a huge let down because someone at some point decided this movie needed some sort of story and so Mr. Mistoffelees ends up being key to magically transporting Old Deuteronomy back to the theater from a barge on the Thames. I was just as confused watching all of this as you were reading that previous sentence.
Finally, it’s time for Old Deutoronomy to choose this year’s Jellicle Cat to travel to the Heavyside Layer. At this point the movie has still done nothing to explain what a jellicle cat or a heavyside layer is. My guess, based on the very minimal context given, is that the Jellicle Cat is a sacrificial cat and the Heavyside Layer is the afterlife, which makes Midsommar the second scariest movie about a weird European death cult to come out last year.
So Deutoronomy is deciding who she will murder when Victoria spots Grizabella, yes GRIZABELLA, who I think is an old prostitute cat and is played by Jennifer Hudson, wandering the street. Victoria urges Grizabella to sing for the group. Jennnifer delivers the show’s 11 o’clock number “Memory.” I’ll be honest, this song slaps.
But the horror of seeing Jennifer Hudson’s human face poorly CGI-ed onto, and moving independently of, a cat body really detracts from the performance. The whole thing is shown in tight closeup, like if Anne Hathaway In Les Miserable was a cat, and by the second half of the song computerized snot starts dripping out of her nose. Digital Snot Technology.
Obvi, ol’ Deut picks Grizabella to go to the Heavyside Layer, so RIP, Griz. Cat Jennifer Hudson sails off into the sunset in a hot air balloon.
And you think the movie is over. But it’s not over.
No, the cats must gather outside for their finale. They look even worse in the sunlight.
In “The Ad-dressing Of Cats,” Judi talks over some music and explains why cats are aloof and the absolute worst:
Before a cat will condescend
To treat you as a trusted friend
Some little token of esteem is needed, like a dish of cream
And you might now and then supply
Some caviar or Strassburg pie
As if this movie hasn’t already done enough to destroy the reputation of felines, now Judi’s out here telling people cats must be bribed with Strassburg pie, which, according to Google, is a pastry containing fatty goose liver. That’s a hard pass on cat ownership from me.
“A cat is not a dog,” Judi says while looking directly into the camera and someone sitting near me cackled with glee.
I suspect that someone is someone like me. Someone who loves the absurdity of this movie and the absurdity surrounding this movie. Like Tom Hooper finishing his editing on the flight to the premiere, and then claiming Cats is about tribalism. And Universal sending an updated version of the film to theaters because Judi Dench’s bare, un-digital-fur-technologied-hand was visible in the first version.
And Jason Derulo saying reviews don’t matter.
The movie, the doomed attempts to save it, and some participants' defense combine to make a loony stew that's bad in a way that tickles those of us at the ten o'clock showings, loving every minute of the bad. Those of us who have been singing "Memory" at full volume for weeks. Those of us who giggle to ourselves when we remember there's a movie that features Taylor Swift as a cat. Those of us who have insisted on taking our friends and family to second and third viewings.
We know Cats is not good, but it’s a really good time.
(Design: Josh Fowlke) (Editor: Rachel Swan)