I knew Cats was bad. It was unanimous and what on this big blue planet is ever unanimous? People love or they hate Rise of Skywalker. They love or they hate The Witcher. They love or they hate Henry Cavill. They love or they hate Popeye’s spicy chicken sandwich. But Cats has united us, just in time for the holidays: everybody hates Cats.
I’ve never seen Cats the musical because in my house growing up, cats (little c) were verboten. My mother was viciously attacked by one as a child and held a deep-seated fear. Although I’m not afraid of them, I’m extremely cautious and skeptical of them. Being very firmly a dog person, I’ve never seen the appeal of a cat: they’re not friendly or loving. It’s not just that they don’t return your affections, they spurn them. Sean, however, grew up in a cat house. And a Cats house as his entire family took in the show when he was a boy, although I dare say they missed the point as they named one of their cats Macavity even though he’s the villain (and all this time I thought they were being clever because Sean’s dad was a dentist. nope) and another Mistoffelees even though their cat was female whereas the Cats cat goes by Mister.
Anyway, we both knew Cats was going to be bad but I thought it might be funny-bad or entertainingly bad or even meme-able bad. Instead I just prayed for a sudden and nasty plague of feline AIDS and tried not to audibly gasp when the movie was once again not over but churning into yet another song about the exact same thing.
The movie (and very likely the show, but I haven’t seen it) is about a “group” of cats called the Jellicles. I don’t know why they’re a group or why they needed to name their group. Are they a gang? A mafia family? Do they commit hate crimes together?
One night a year they all get together to participate in a Suicide Pageant. They each sing a song, and judge Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) decides which one will die. Naturally I assumed Old Deuteronomy was the villain of the film, but not so. Apparently it’s a real honour to be chosen for cat-on-cat euthanasia; all the cats talk about ascending over to the Heaviside Layer like it’s the greatest thing. Which I suppose confirms what I’ve always believed about cats: they’re a miserable bunch, angry at life itself, waiting impatiently for it all to end. Which also describes a Cats audience.
Victoria, the lead cat, newly abandoned and adopted by the Jellicles, undergoes some pretty ambitious white-washing considering its actors are covered in fur. Francesca Hayward, the ballerina who plays her, is Kenyan-born and black, but you wouldn’t know it or even guess it to look at her cat. Although I suppose that’s a fairly minor insult compared to how dirty they did Jennifer Hudson, who plays Grizabella. Grizabella is a down-on-her-luck cat roundly rejected by the asshole Jellicles and by Cats director Tom Hooper who knows she’s a star but decides to bury her in a mound of garbage. Grizabella looks inexplicably terrible, which is particularly sad because when Hudson sings that one Cats song everyone knows (Memory, and damn right she sings it twice), it’s the only time the audience willingly faces the screen. But Hudson is so moved by the lyrics, she’s constantly got lines of snot running from her nose to her mouth, glistening in the movie lights, making sure we gag to the fullest extent of the law. Considering how much money was spent to digitally alter away any trace of male “bulge” you’d think a CGI swipe or two under her nose would have been wise, but no.
Cats is 7 hours long, so maybe think about bringing some knitting or a crossword or a roast beef with you to the theatre. Technically the run time is just under two hours and that’s all that will have passed outside the theatre. But inside it’s a marathon shit show. As I said before, the Cats story takes place over one fateful evening, a time conceit which usually gives a film a nice sense of urgency but in this case it feels like the movie never goes anywhere. We just stand in one spot singing about the same thing over and over until somebody dies. Literally! And there’s a slideshow of celebrity cameos – Taylor Swift, Rebel Wilson, James Corden, Ian McKellan – who show up for a song and then disappear again into the night, perhaps to form their own real-life career suicide club for having appeared in 2019’s biggest flop.
And Cats had that distinction before it was even in theatres; even the trailer creeped people out. The cats are weird human-cat hybrid. Human faces and human hands poke out of fur and CGI ears and tails twitch as though they have a life of their own. Everything in the movie is scaled up so the cats appear…well, not quite cat-sized but definitely weird. Everything about this movie is off, never mind the fact that they walk on two feet, except when they don’t. And they’re all naked and barefoot except when they’re not. A couple of them wear sneakers, one wears pants, another a sparkly jacket. Rebel Wilson’s Jennyanydots unzips her fur to reveal another fur pelt wearing a jazzy ensemble…that she’s kept hidden under her skin this whole time? Doesn’t that get hot?
Cats’ greatest sin is of course that it’s boring. It’s got one memorable song and a bunch of filler. The numbers are repetitive. The dancing is a big yawn. Cats, making its London debut in 1981, needed some updating. Perhaps the kindest thing would have been to lose the ballet in favour of something a little more modern. Nobody wants a musical overstuffed with songs that drag without moving the plot forward coupled with dance that struggles to connect with anything current or relevant.
People have hated this movie so universally that director Tom Hooper re-edited it furiously, and a new cut, with yet more CGI effects, is being rushed to theatres as we speak. But unless Star Wars is sold out, you won’t be seeing it, right? Because you value your time and money? And because Cats sits in your belly like a hairball you can’t wait to go home and hack up.
p.s. Since the only good thing about the movie is Jennifer Hudson’s 4 minutes, here she is for free on Youtube singing Memory: