The ‘CATS’ Movie Is a Boring Disaster Filled With Joyless Pussies
The last thing anyone thought the movie version of “CATS” with Taylor Swift and Jennifer Hudson would be is a snooze. Yet that’s just the biggest disappointment of the film’s mess.
I was sold a trainwreck, and I’m annoyed I didn’t get it.
While the CATS movie is not the unmitigated disaster that trailers and production reports hinted at, it is arguably something much worse. For a movie starring Taylor Swift, Idris Elba, and Jennifer Hudson about a cult of teeny-tiny cats who sing and dance in hopes that Judi Dench will choose them to die, CATS is incredibly, confusingly boring.
This is a film adaptation of one of the most ridiculous productions in theatrical history. The plot is legitimately out of its mind. You’ve got Dame Judi Dench and Sir Ian McKellen crawling around like cats. The very idea of this movie became its own viral phenomenon. But in a bizarre reversal of tropes, it’s CATS that may kill the curiosity. The thing isn’t even campy, goofy fun. It’s inexplicably joyless and morose.
Even people who are passionate fans of CATS—bless their hearts—are sheepish in recounting the show’s plot.
A tribe of neglected cats called the Jellicles gather for the Jellicle Ball, at which they decide which one of them gets to ascend to the Heaviside Layer, their version of heaven, and be reborn into a new life. One by one, they introduce themselves with a song that constantly repeats their name. A famous lady sings “Memory” (in this case, that’s Hudson) and a wise cat named Old Deuteronemy (played here by Dench) chooses the winner, who is then sacrificed and everybody goes home.
In other words, the Jellicle cats are a cult.
It’s deranged, but it’s easy to just go with it when you’re seeing a live production of the show, in which a bunch of chorus dancers dressed in furry leotards with insane feline makeup perform some incredibly difficult choreography while occasionally crawling into the audience.
It became the most popular musical in Broadway history after its debut in 1981. Its original run played 7,485 performances before closing in 2000. A revival in the West End starred Pussycat Doll and underappreciated living legend Nicole Scherzinger, eventually transferring to Broadaway again in 2016 with “Bleeding Love” singer Leona Lewis as Grizabella, the bullied diva cat who belts “Memory.”
Because of its popularity, it was marketed as a musical for the masses. Because it is legitimately insane, it made an entire generation of people think they hated musical theater. Wait ’til they see this movie!
Director Tom Hooper, known most for filming outlandish close-ups in his take on Les Misérables, spent the better part of a year making a big to-do of the revolutionary “digital fur technology” he was developing to transform his A-list cast into cats.
The first trailer was the stuff of actual nightmares, and industry trades reported that he was so hellbent on fixing things that the movie nearly didn’t screen in time for Golden Globes nominators. (That a movie like this that would ordinarily be catnip—heyo!—for Globes voters didn’t score a Best Musical nomination was the first warning siren of impending disaster.)
Hooper told the crowd at the film’s premiere Monday night in New York that he only finished the final cut of the movie hours earlier. You know what? I believe him!
The end result is hardly the horror show previewed in the trailers, a veritable snuff film in which the characters tails rose directly out of the actors’ buttholes. But the “digital fur technology” is glaringly fake and cartoonish, morphing the celebrity cast into unsettling, goonish-looking human-animal hybrids. You never truly get over it.
When Hooper is shooting in his signature close-ups, the technology is fleetingly impressive. Jennifer Hudson, especially, seemed to have extra attention lavished on her digital fur for her show-stopping performance of “Memory.” But when the ensemble was shown dancing in wide shots, they resembled nothing more than animated blurs. In those instances, the technology does a disservice to the actual performances.
Especially in those wide shots, there are egregious issues with scale. Perhaps Jellicle cats are supposed to be the size of an actual cat’s paw, but it doesn’t make it any less jarring to see them on screen looking so itty-bitty. It’s everything that seems too small: the scale, the scope, the energy, and even the weirdness.
The Jellicle Ball is essentially Burning Man for the kitty cult, yet it’s somehow rendered so staid and lifeless here. The first 20-25 minutes of the movie are some of the most painful to sit through of any studio movie this year. It is that much of a slog. It is also important to inform potential ticket buyers that every song in CATS has about 47 choruses. I did not remember that.
Things liven up when some of the scene-stealing stars start to arrive. Rebel Wilson and James Corden are incredibly fun doing their Rebel Wilson and James Corden schticks. The songs “Mungojerry and Rumpleteazer” and “Skimbleshanks, the Railway Cat” have the kind of vigor the whole movie should have been able to muster. Ian McKellen’s theatre cat song made me cry.
People I talked to after the premiere were split, either surprised that CATS is basically a musical for children or disturbed by the latent horniness that underscored the movie. Both are true. Only the pure innocence of youth can truly appreciate the lunacy of this story, yet adults will likely spend the entirety of the movie wondering why they can’t stop thinking about fucking those cats.
There’s a baffling preponderance of innuendos and references to the characters’ genitals, amplifying an existing fascination. One of the loudest reactions to the trailer was confusion as to why the Jellicle cats have human boobies. And perhaps the greatest story relating to the film’s digital effects came when Jason DeRulo told Andy Cohen that editors CGI’d his massive penis out of the movie. Then there’s the Idris Elba of it all. When he first arrived on screen, the woman next to me let out a reflexive, feral moan: “Yaaas.”
The whole “they’re cats but they’re humans but they’re also actually cats” thing that is the whole CATS thing never ceases to be baffling. I would sit through a long lecture on how the filmmakers decided which human features to make more cat-like, and which were like, “Nah, it’s OK that it just looks like Jennifer Hudson wearing a cat ear headband.”
They have human eyes, noses, teeth, and mouths, yet whiskers and ears. I’m sorry I cannot do more to prepare you for each time a cat shows their paw and it is, in fact, a HUMAN HAND. Why do some cats wear shoes and others do not? Why do Hudson and McKellen’s cats get full wardrobes and outfits, yet the movie’s two leads, Francesca Heyward’s Victoria and Robbie Fairchild’s Munkustrap, just wear monochrome bodysuits?
Are we to consider the macabre optics of Judi Dench playing a cat wearing a fur coat made out of cat fur? Or what exactly is happening when Rebel Wilson unzips her cat fur to reveal more cat fur and also a sequined dress underneath it?
Is there a rhyme or reason to when the cats crawl on all fours versus when they walk on two feet like humans? How is it that nearly every character makes a reference to their private parts, yet there were no private parts to speak of? Will I make it to this end of this paragraph with my sanity intact?
The film’s two biggest stars fare much differently.
Playing sassy Bombalurina, who sings “Macavity,” Taylor Swift performing a sexy torch song in a British accent is exactly as entertaining as that sounds. Jennifer Hudson, on the other hand, arrives on screen performing at an 11 and never dials it down. It is one note of relentless sadness, with a full-on weeping breakdown in the first scene and snot on her upper lip for the entirety of the movie. It’s as if her agent said to her “the guy who directed Anne Hathaway in Les Mis is doing this movie” and Hudson was like, “Say no more.”
That said, “Memory” was flawless. That key change is bulletproof, and Hudson nailed it, earning a mid-screening ovation at the premiere.
It’s unclear what would have made a movie version of CATS “good,” whatever that may mean. But I thought it would have been way more fun.
There’s a moment at the end when Dame Judi Dench breaks the fourth wall, stares directly into the camera, and declares “a cat is not a dog.” It is fucking insane. It is also exactly what this movie should have been more like.