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Biggest Flop of the Year or Stealth Masterpiece?

I saw Cats.

When going to view Cats, one should arrive early. Time is needed to prepare emotionally for the experience.

I did not do this. I was late to the movie, rushing in as the trailers ended and still getting myself sorted as the first scene unfolded. Thus I was thunderstruck by the sight of the first cats emerging from the shadows.

That’s the first thought that entered my mind. The miraculous, hideous, impossibility of witnessing the things I witnessed on a real movie screen.

You’ve likely seen the trailers. You know the cats are weird. You may have wondered what brand of cat nip crossed what breed of greased paw in a faraway Hollywood office to bring such befuddling abominations to life. My brain refused to accept the hybrid, uncanny valley hell kittens as they pranced across a CGI backlot.

One of the most startling aspects of the cats is their human hands and feet. Remember the drawings by monks of the dark ages, evidence that they were trying to illustrate things they’d never witnessed? Those are what come immediately to mind. Imagine being at home and seeing a cat with human hands and feet jeté past your window. You’d have yourself committed immediately.

But what could the filmmakers do? CGIing cat paws onto human actors would be even more frightening!

That’s the thing with this movie. Usually with catastrophic movies you can unwind them, figure out where things went wrong and imagine potential solutions, different choices that could have resulted in something decent.

I don’t think there’s any fixing Cats.

No matter how long you walk, there’s no road to Mars and no matter how hard you strain yourself, there’s no series of correct choices that can make the stage musical Cats into a good movie.

(I was blessed by the movie musical gods and got to see the unedited version of the movie, with Judi Dench’s wedding ring fully on display.)

What happens in Cats? Well, despite the best efforts of the screenwriters, nothing much happens in Cats. It’s like watching a heist movie where all the characters in the gang have fun introduction scenes, but then the heist never happens. Each cat has one defining characteristic and they sing a song about it.

James Corden draws the short stick, attempting to inject personality into a cat whose whole deal can be summed up as “chonky”. Other cats get professions, but his cat likes eating and falls down a lot. Maybe I missed something.

The white cat has an extended role as an audience surrogate discovering the world of jellicle cats. (A world that takes more explaining than you’d think necessary, considering the rules are: be a cat.) The white cat is played by Francesca Hayward who has lovely ballet technique and the unique ability to look like she wants to jump the bones of whichever cat she’s sharing the screen with. I would not have been surprised to see her and Old Deuteronomy invest in some heavy smoochy time at the end of the movie.

Smoochies are the only kind of romantic interaction jellicle cats can afford, since they lack the kitten-generating equipment normal cats come with (making me wonder if the universe of Cats exists on the USS Callister). Maybe that’s why they have to recruit strays to join their ranks.

Ian McKellen is delighfully deranged as Gus the old theatre cat. He operates on another level of absurdity, his character privy to delusional secrets the rest of us will never know. I’d watch a whole television series of Ian McKellen wandering around, portraying different animals. (Of note: I believe he’s the only cat to meow in this movie.)

Taylor Swift’s original song is a little too 2019 and is odd coming on the tail (see what I did there?) of Memories. I know everyone likes those Oscar statues, but sometimes you don’t have to write new songs for old things.

Speaking of which, Jennifer Hudson is in this movie and she manages to check another box on the diva movie musical bingo card. I’m not sure what she wins once her card is full. Maybe she’ll have the power to prevent “Cats 2: Feline Good” from ever being made.

At one point a railway cat appears and the camera zooms in super close to show he is wearing tap shoes. “YES!” exclaims the woman sitting to my right. Strange woman, you won my heart. Never have I heard anyone express such pure joy at the sight of tap shoes. And the railway cat is no slouch. Usually in modern movies, when people tap dance, they perform a series of well-timed stomps with confident arm movements. Tap is intricate and difficult and you can’t learn to do it well in a month of movie magic camp. But the railway cat knows his shit.

Good work, railway cat.

There’s also a magician cat who discovers his inner strength through the power of people singing with him. That’s the moment at which I realized something. This movie is EXACTLY like Midsommar.

  • An outsider is recruited into a secretive gang of characters who are deeply convinced of their own specialness.
  • Lots of dancing.
  • Old cats are murdered at a special ritual, and everyone agrees this is a great honor.

You see, in the Cats universe, no one can die except once a year when they’re chosen by Judi Dench at the most boring ball ever (no ballgowns). This would be fun to try out in the human world, except Judi Dench already seems to have her non-CGIed hands full answering questions about why the hell she agreed to appear in this movie.

The human brain can get used to a lot. The most horrific and dehumanizing things can gradually become normalized. The amazing thing about Cats is that it never wears you down to the point where the cats begin to look normal. They are astonishingly weird throughout. It’s quite a feat.

The fine folks making this film must have known deep in the pits of their souls that they were stuck on a train to stinkersville, but they sucked it up, they pepped each other up, they closed their eyes, and they leaned into it so hard that I can almost respect where they ended up.

I’ve been there. It’s that moment when you’re falling and it’s too late to catch yourself, so you decide to fall with as much drama and flair as possible. Maybe doing a little roll as you hit the ground and flinging your arms out into an epic splat. Make it art.

Cats is an epic splat. That’s all it has to recommend itself and what ensures it will never be forgotten.

No one half asses it in this movie. They will never make it to Mars, but damn if they aren’t walking with conviction.

“But,” you might ask, “what score do you give it?”

A galaxy of stars.

An emphatic thumbs down.

It’s terrible.

I’m so glad it exists.

Thanks for reading. For more stuff I’m on twitter and I have a newsletter.

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Engaged in inadvisable wordsmitheries and other creative acts.

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