It is rare when a film is so bad that hyperbole does not do it justice…
When it had been initially announced that after four decades of Broadway entrenchment the production of ‘’Cats’’ was being adapted for Hollywood there was zero interest from me. It was a musical (strike one) about felines (strike two) with a cast of mostly actors and not stage performers (strike three, and I’ll see you at the hockey game.)
Then things changed.
First, the trailers came out, and they were a mystifying pastiche of odd costuming and bad computer effects. People were not intrigued but became repulsed. Hmmmm. Next came the news that the film would miss out on most cinematic awards because the release was delayed to retrofit the CGI, a usual sign dire of trouble. Then, ahead of last weekend’s release, the studio placed an embargo on reviews until Wednesday evening.
Any film with awards aspirations wants to have as much advance word as possible, to build up hype and develop the title into a ‘’serious’’ film. For Universal to limit critical response time is an indicator the studio knew it had a problem on its hands, wanting to limit the amount of bad publicity. I awaited the release of those reviews, and it was even better than anticipated. The critics were almost uniform in their dismay at how bad the film was, with the few raves found arriving along the lines of, ‘’It’s so bad you have to see this.’’
This became a must-see motion picture for me. When people are fleeing a fiasco I am the type to rush in to see it.
More accurately, I was subjected to it. ‘’Cats’’ exhibits all of the hallmarks of the worst of stage musicals. It is a self-serious affair, overwrought not with acting but PERFORMANCES, and underserved by anything resembling a story. Much of the dialogue is sung, in that manner where composition and melody are dispatched and the characters essentially speak in the overly familiar pattern of verse that poses as entertaining performance.
In a fashion:
The characters all spoke in song /
Which was, insufferably long /
Without a trace of content – not a particle.
They all sounded the same /
While delivering mi-graines /
The specifics I’ll de – tail – in -this- article
Now imagine 110 minutes of that kind of preening stagecraft. There are normally concerns in reviews that there will be spoilers which detract from the audience experience. Not the case with ‘’Cats’’. If I could detail what transpired it would not impact your viewing. Note the qualifier used — Capital ‘’I’’, Capital ‘’F’’, underlined, boldfaced, italicized…IF I could detail this fever dream of a film.
The entire cast is made up of, yes – cats. Points for truth in advertising. But they are a strange amalgam in motion. When on Broadway you understand these are actors in makeup and catsuits, so you buy in to the intent by filling in the gaps. Here an effort was made to appear more realistic, and it delivers an unsettling result. The fur and whiskers are spot on, but they still sport human hands and feet — though…a few wear shoes…? Also, a notable amount of characters are in fur coats, worn over their inherent fur. Did they field dress other cats? Are they toddling around in feline skin suits??
What threadbare plot exists centers around Victoria, a white cat who is alone and encounters a large group of street felines. These are deemed ‘’jellicle cats’’. It is assumed they are different than other cats portrayed. Assumed, because at no point in time is this word ever defined, despite it being spoken constantly. There is an annual Jellicle Ball, and all the jellicle cats perform to be selected as the lone jellicle selected to rise to the ‘’Heaviside Layer’’. As the ball is about to begin one ‘’song’’ says ‘’Jellicle cats – jellicle ball’’ so many times I am convinced they were paid a royalty for every utterance.
Instead of a plot the bulk of the film is having us encounter one cat after another, each granted their own song to self-indulge and engage in histrionics. The consistently unfunny Rebel Wilson is a lazy house cat who sings with mice and has a routine with hundreds of roaches. There were actually full-body roach costumes manufactured for this unentertaining spectacle, with Wilson consuming at least three of the roaches with human faces during her number. James Cordon appears, because Hollywood insists on him becoming a fixture, for some reason. Here he is a pompous fat cat, so he manages to become even more insufferable than usual.
Amid all of this Idris Elba prowls around, along with Dame Judy Dench and Ian McKellen, all uniformly embarrassed. Elba is Macavity, a surly street cat in a hat who has such a strong desire to go to Heaviside that he kidnaps others to reduce the competition. He does this by swiping the air and teleporting. His captives are chained on a barge on the Thames…of course. How does a cat have this ability? Unclear, it is never addressed.
Dench plays Deuteronomy, the head cat who selects the annual winner(?) of the ball. Her song is an artistic struggle to have her and the cast rhyme her name. (‘’My legs are old, and tottery’’ goes one refrain.) McKellen adds very little to this affair, giving one song where he rasps monotonically about being a theater cat – whatever that is. Taylor Swift lowers in on a moon and dusts catnip all around, to no lasting effect, while singing not of herself but of Macavity. Her song is completely forgettable, another addition to the long list of wasted talent here.
Jennifer Hudson is tasked with the lone ditty of any repute, the classic ‘’Memories’’, and she expectedly nails it. She plays Grizabella, a seemingly homeless cat (I guess? Does it really matter? Nope!) and later Victoria, for little motivation shown, compels her to come into the ball and again sing the signature torch song. Grizabella becomes selected by Deuteronomy to be given the chance to go to Heaviside — so, she is essentially killed, correct?? Unclear! She rides up in a balloon in a chandelier gondola and Macavity tries to hang on, but he falls and is stranded on a tall statue in town. Why not just teleport into the balloon? Unclear!
In the end, Dench declares that Victoria is now a verified jellicle. How, why, what did she do to earn this nebulous title? UNCLEAR!! But Dench speaks her final song, and then all of the cats join the loud ballad, and as the orchestra swells to a deafening crescendo we are delivered the deep wisdom of the film — ‘’Your memory I’ll jog — a cat is NOT a dog!’’
I mean seriously. That is a very poor choice to leave with your audience. You just gave a massive $90+ million effort with a large cast in costumes and immense sets, as well as numerous computer makeovers, but little in the way of content. Despite the title and the insistence of the climactic song, make no mistake — this movie is certainly a dog!