You can take your 90s Batman flicks and your VHS copy of Return to Oz and throw them out the window because Cats will be rightfully taking their place as the creepiest, tackiest movie ever geared towards children. From the moment that the trailer was released, the internet has been in shambles. Nobody can seem to figure out why the characters have been subjected to half-baked CGI, making them appear more human than animal, nor can anyone theorize what the film is actually about. And having spent the opening night in a completely empty theatre, I can assure you all, Cats ushers in a new kind of horror that appears hell-bent on becoming a cult classic.
Based on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Broadway musical of the same name, Cats explores the world of “Jellicle cats” on the night of the annual Jellicle Ball, where one cat is chosen to ascend to the Heaviside Layer (essentially, cat heaven) and be reborn. It’s a fairly morbid ordeal as the central conflict arises from the competition of these cats all wanting to exit their lives and start anew. Acclaimed director Tom Hooper (Les Misérables, The King’s Speech, The Danish Girl) took on this ambitious material and truly made it his own — but not in the way you would hope. While the CGI cats are extremely off-putting, there is no denying the distinct atmosphere surrounding their London borough. Through a strangely intoxicating set design, Hooper is able to draw the audience in spite of the film’s utterly boring plot. But there’s only so much that aesthetically-pleasing neon signage can pull together.
Cats feature a star-studded cast, comprised of James Corden, Judi Dench, Jason Derulo, Idris Elba, Jennifer Hudson, Ian McKellan, Taylor Swift, and Rebel Wilson. None of these performances were granted enough screen time to judge them fairly, however, in her limited sequences, Hudson really gives it her all. She plays Grizabella, an outcast who spends the bulk of the film skulking and sobbing until she randomly belts out a song that redeems her for whatever she had done wrong. While hers was a calculatedly heartfelt performance, the real star of the show was Derulo, whose presence in the film as Rum Tum Tugger, a rebellious and flirty Jellicle cat, was not only fun but radically entertaining. But when the best part of a film is Jason Derulo, there’s a definite issue.
I would have been intrigued to see more Francesca Hayward, who plays the film’s protagonist, Victoria. Considering the fact that Cats centers around her arrival on this pivotal night, Victoria is surprisingly granted few lines and is constantly subjected to hearing the life stories of various other Jellicle cats. This film is Hayward’s first acting role as she has been a dancer with the Royal Ballet for the last decade. Her familiarity and precision with movement would have been much better served with her as the focal point but was cheaply discarded for the likes of Wilson and Corden.
Technicalities aside, we have to get something out of the way: the sexual tension in this movie is off the charts. The female cats are shown to have breasts and wide hips and every dance sequence is uncomfortably lusty. Swift’s entire scene was short, over-sexualized, and completely unnecessary. Also, the dialogue runs rampant with innuendos, nearly to the point of exhaustion. Why? I found myself repeatedly asking this same question, given the film’s PG rating. This salaciousness does nothing but hinder an already questionable plotline and renders it even more inappropriate and difficult for its target demographic to follow.
With a budget of 95 million USD, there really is no excuse for how poorly edited this was. The film is plagued with continuity errors and sloppy cuts that make it feel low budget. Hooper also frequently undercuts the theatricality that made the musical iconic and diverts his tone with every passing scene. The plot is so catastrophically non-specific that the genre is malleable; at times, Cats feels like a horror or thriller film, at others, it is utterly comedic. But despite its non-stop singing, the film rarely feels like a musical. It fails to encapsulate the whimsy that any good Broadway show assures and every musical number was just another cat’s introduction, with the exception of one confusing cockroach number where all the cockroaches, of course, had human faces.
Sexed-up felines and dancing cockroaches aside, the real problem with Cats is its inherent futility. You can easily walk out of the theatre understanding absolutely nothing but frankly, it’s not as though the film has much to say. Cats rely heavily on nostalgia brought forth from those who adore its source material. Within the first twenty minutes, the term “Jellicle” is flung around aimlessly as though the audience is familiar with its definition. The way in which the characters are introduced implies a prior understanding of their role in the plot.
While pretty horrendous overall, Cats does have its moments. The dancers are undoubtedly talented and move with the fluidity of actual cats and, at times, it can be funny, but for all the wrong reasons. Ultimately, none of this was enough to salvage the dumpster fire that was this confusing and never-ending fever dream. Cats is an unsurprisingly bad movie that has virtually nothing going for it and will likely age like milk (no pun intended). Whether it garners its cult classic status has yet to be determined but frankly, I’d rather this film be buried with the 2010s and never spoken about again.