I finally got around to seeing Cats, the live action film based on the classic stage musical by the same name. There are some stage plays that have translated well to film, like Little Shop of Horrors, Grease, and Sweeney Todd. However, not every musical will work for mediums beyond the stage. Cats has received a bit of a reputation of being one of those musicals that should have stayed on the stage since the movie’s release. Now that I have finally experienced one of the most fascinating movies to hit the big screen in recent years, I want to look closer into exactly why that is.
Cats is a musical, so one of the most important elements in the film is the singing. Thankfully, the singing from each of the cast members is phenomenal. This is especially the case with Jennifer Hudson’s take on the classic “Memory.” Hudson singing “Memory” is beautiful enough to bring tears to people’s eyes. Cats clearly has an extremely talented group of singers making up its cast.
The choreography for each dance sequence is impressive. These scenes are massive spectacles with tons of talented dancers and magnificent moves. The props and sets play large roles in each dance sequence, adding a lot of visual fun and causing each one to stand out with its own identity.
The first clear issue with this film is how the cats look. The CGI is horrendous. If it was one crappy CGI character, that would be one thing, but literally every single character is a motion-capture mess. Some are even scary to look at. Instead of appearing as human-like cats, they are more like Lovecraftian nightmares. They’re difficult to look at for an entire movie. Because of this, many of the movements are unsettling and don’t look right, like when a character’s head moves, but their face doesn’t.
The plot is genuinely difficult to understand without looking it up online. It’s not quite clear what’s going on during the movie, or if there is any real story at all, until the end. What they try to pass off as a story is just spending almost the entirety of the film introducing various cats to us through song. We then get somewhat of a conflict during the final act.
Much of the story that IS clear is hugely flawed. Jennifer Hudson’s character is shunned by the rest of the cats, but we never find out why. It’s extremely important to the plot that we know the other cats don’t want her in their group, so it should be equally as important as to what she did to deserve it. Despite there being entire songs sung about each of the characters, we know almost nothing about them. After the songs about them, we don’t spend enough time with these characters to care about them. We weirdly know the least about the film’s protagonist. Because of this, it’s impossible to feel concerned for the characters when they are eventually in danger.
One of the strangest flaws with the plot is with the character of Mr. Mistoffelees. For one, his character development could have been interesting, given that we find out he’s a magician who’s been trying to become talented enough to show off his magic but has been unable to perfect it because he is unsure of himself. However, we are given that backstory and how he overcomes his self confidence issue in the course of a single two-minute song. It could have been an interesting and fun story arc, but it was extremely rushed. On top of that, when Mr. Mistoffelees overcomes his self confidence issue and can finally perform magic, he uses it to save one of the cats in danger and leaves the others to fend for their lives on their own. If he was so good at magic, why wouldn’t he use it to save all of them?
The McGuffin of the film is for the winner of a singing competition to ascend to the Heaviside Layer and come back to a new life. They never actually say what that means, so it’s unclear what each of the characters are trying to accomplish. It feels like the winner is being sacrificed, which is incredibly odd.
Victoria and Mr. Mistoffelees are revealed to be love interests at the end of the film, which would be fine if it made sense. They don’t really talk to each other throughout the story. There’s no real reason for them to suddenly fall in love.
There are an awful lot of strange occurrences during the film that may not have been intended to be so odd. Some are unsettling and tough to look at, but somehow tougher to look away from. There’s a cat that unzips her own flesh to reveal that she was wearing clothes under her fur, but with more fur underneath those clothes. Another cat rips off the tuxedo he’s wearing to reveal his fur also naturally looks like a tuxedo. We get to experience what cockroaches and mice look like in this world, and they are somehow more terrifying than the cats. We hear a dog barking at one point, causing one to think about what a dog could possibly look like in a film like this. Perhaps the strangest of all was that the movie ends with one of the cats breaking the fourth wall and staring directly at the audience to tell us that cats are not dogs, which I hope everyone already knew.
There’s even a scene where Taylor Swift dumps catnip onto a group of the other cats, causing them to freak out in a drugged state. This leads to the discomfort of seeing several characters forced to take drugs against their will paired with the terror of rather unnatural movements.
There are elements throughout the film that are incredibly inconsistent. For one, the cats randomly switch between crawling like cats and walking like humans throughout the whole movie. This implies that cats are walking on their hind legs for hours. They could have avoided drawing attention to this by always having them walk like people, but crawling like cats draws attention to the detail. The sizes of the props and environments are especially inconsistent. At first, everything appears to be larger so that the cats feel cat-sized. However, some props would be too small, like when the cats hold paint buckets that fit in their hands implying the buckets are extra tiny. Some of the environments are too big, making the cats in the shot appear to be the size of mice, like when they are walking along the train track.
Much of the movie’s editing is pretty lazy. There are cuts that just plain don’t make sense. There is one cut where Rebel Wilson is being expressive with her hands while talking, but then her arms suddenly teleport to being by her side and she’s now holding something she wasn’t before.
I genuinely feel bad for the actors involved. They are all extremely talented and some are even legends, and they were forced to do things for this movie that were either really dumb or outright crazy, like Sir Ian McKellen hissing at people or licking milk. This is the same person who cried on set of The Hobbit for acting in front of a green screen, and now he’s in this CGI mess. Dame Judi Dench has to talk directly into the camera about how a cat is not a dog. At least some of the more comedic cast members, like Rebel Wilson or James Corden were able to have some goofy fun here and there.
In the Know
Cats is based on the stage musical composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber, which was based on the 1939 poetry collection Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Elliot. Most of the poems in the collection were written about different, individual cats who became characters in the stage play.
Universal Studios originally wanted Cats to be up for consideration for the Academy Awards, but retracted their nomination due to the film’s backlash. It certainly makes one wonder what made them think this movie was Oscar-good. Adapting a classic musical does not inherently make it Oscar material.
Also due to the backlash the film received, Universal sent movie theaters an updated version of the film after its release with supposedly fixed special effects. So, it was all somehow worse at one point…
On the DVD version of the film, there are behind the scenes looks at the making of the film that include interviews with the cast and director. It’s definitely worth the watch for even more unintentional humor because they spend a lot of time discussing this great work they are a part of and how honored they are to be involved. They clearly had no idea what the final result would be.
Cats offers a catchy tune here and there and a star-studded cast, but it is one of the most bizarre viewing experiences for any recent movie. It’s like an hour and fifty minutes of a train wreck you can’t look away from. It’s far from being an actual good movie due to its unclear story, lazy editing, cringey CGI, and confusingly crazy actions, but it’s something everyone should see to truly experience the catastrophe. It’s not at all what the studio or filmmakers wanted this film to be, but it’s a pretty solid choice for bad movie night. The Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew would have a field day with this mess.
Rating as the film was intended: 2/10
Rating as a “So bad, it’s good” bad movie night film: 8/10