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‘Cats’ Is Impossible to Review

So instead, here are some stray thoughts about Taylor Swift, the cat afterlife, “Memory,” and Ian McKellan’s nonsinging singing voice

Universal Pictures/Ringer illustration

As I can think of no more culturally resonant image for the end of 2019 than James Corden diving face-first into a dumpster containing CGI garbage and rooting around for five agonizing minutes, I’m tempted to call Cats an accidental masterpiece: not the Christmas blockbuster we need, but the one that we deserve.

The problem with trying to frame Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical as a fascinating catastrophe—the tack taken by carpet-bombing critics who at least know a big, easy target when they see one—is that it’s almost too boring to get so performatively worked up about. If only the assessment that “watching Cats is like a descent into madness” was more accurate, then we would have a true camp classic in our midst, a furry Showgirls to call our own. But at no point during the film’s two-hour runtime did I feel like my third eye had suddenly opened, and as excited as I was to be potentially stranded in a “void of horny confusion” (which, to be fair, is where film critics spend most of their time), I don’t think that any forbidden doors have been unlocked in my subconscious. Cats is not catnip. So, what follows is a list of eight things I found myself thinking about during Cats, almost all of which are either about the movie itself in some way or were directly inspired by the act of watching it; it’s the best that I can do.

1. The Music in Cats Isn’t Very Good

The case for Andrew Lloyd Webber as a serial musical plagiarist has been made many times; even if you want to give him the benefit of the doubt because he’s technically a knight (like Sting), it’s no secret that his shtick is derivation. Lloyd Webber’s brand of soaring balladry is so established that Eric Idle devoted an entire number in Spamalot to spoofing it in the form of “The Song That Goes Like This.” The Song That Goes Like This in Cats is “Memory,” which may be the ultimate Andrew Lloyd Webber song in that (1) it’s perilously close to a ripoff (he played it for his composer father to make sure he hadn’t actually lifted the melody from an opera by Puccini) and (2) it’s an earworm, meaning it’s like the worms from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan that crawl into your brain and turn you into a helpless zombie. When Jennifer Hudson finally sings “Memory” near the end of Cats (the movie), it’s a relief because the song’s stately, majestic build runs counter to the inane hammering of the other numbers, which sound pretty much like what they are: hard-working attempts to set T.S. Eliot’s graceful, self-consciously absurd nonsense poems set to synthesizers. Notwithstanding Jia Tolentino’s beautiful (and accurate) description of the show’s overture as “descending like a diva on a staircase,” Cats’ moments of actual musical magic are few and far between. And the one song that’s actually about magic (“Magical Mister Mistoffelees”) has a circular sing-along hook that, by the 10th go-around, starts to feel like a death spiral (“They’re singing it again” someone behind me moaned before being shushed).

2. The Plot of Cats Isn’t Very Complicated

People seem very confused by the narrative of Cats, and while I wouldn’t say that it’s one of the best plotted musicals of all time, it’s really not as bizarre as writers on the Cats-is-batshit-crazy beat are making it out to be. It’s basically the story of an annual contest in which one cat is selected from London’s feline underclass to ascend to heaven and begin their existence again—the circle of life, basically. Unsurprisingly and anticlimactically, it’s the aforementioned Grizabella, a faded “Glamour Cat,” coded by Eliot and Lloyd Webber both as a “fallen woman” figure, who wins, mostly because most of the other cats who make their case seem fairly relaxed, happy, and in the prime of their current lives. Grizabella basically only ever sings about being at death’s door; her only real competition is the evil Macavity (Idris Elba), who doesn’t remotely deserve the honor but tries to sabotage the competition. That’s pretty much it, storywise, and while you’re certainly within your rights to say this is a silly narrative for a work of musical theater, it’s perfectly easy to follow.

3. Cats Isn’t Really About Anything

The story goes that when Lloyd Webber previewed Cats’ score for his peers, they were mostly bewildered about what seemed to be a total lack of subtext. Critics had interpreted Eliot’s poems as mildly satirical visions of late-1930s London, with the various cats standing in for a set of sturdy British archetypes, but the work was explicitly aimed at children. If there was a moral to be taken from the pile-up of clever couplets, it was basically that cats are clever, mysterious, annoying creatures worthy of our curiosity and respect. Which is fair enough, but isn’t much to hang a narrative musical on, which is why the composer and director Trevor Nunn contrived the setup of the “Jellicle Ball” and Grizabella’s journey to the “Heaviside Layer” (a cosmological fancy supposedly taken from Eliot’s unpublished writings). In interviews, Hooper has claimed that Cats is a cautionary tale about exclusionary attitudes and the “perils of tribalism,” an unconvincing attempt at Movie We Need Right Now rhetoric that only throws its flimsiness into sharper relief. A better director might have turned Victoria’s flirtation with criminality in “Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer” into something anarchic and dangerous; even when Cats briefly goes Gaspar Noé and doses the whole ensemble with hallucinogens, it feels innocuous. The only thing worse than a $90 million movie striving pretentiously for meaning is one content to luxuriate so decadently in its absence.

4. Making the Cats into Actual Cats Was Not a Good Idea

Everyone behind Cats was very proud of the fact that they made their human performers appear to be the size of actual cats by building massive sets. However, that they did this is the crux of the “Cats Is Nightmare Fuel” rhetoric; that the imaginative leap you make watching talented, attractive Broadway performers stylize their bodies and voices to do allegedly cat-like things is less demanding (and traumatizing) than seeing actors—some of whom are very famous—transformed via the application of “digital fur technology” into refugees from the uncanny valley. Similarly, whereas on stage the use of oversized props to get across the idea that we are seeing the world from a four-legged perspective can be charming and inventive (the show was nominated for a Tony for its set design), onscreen the locations are indistinguishable from every other CGI-assisted period piece; this London has no real character or credibility. Inevitably, a lot of people—including a few I was sitting with at the screening—have focused on the weirdly airbrushed anatomies of the cats, whose crotches are often on display (even Dame Judi Dench’s) yet seem to be waiting for somebody to finish them in post. For the record, Jason Derulo, whose performance as the Rum Tum Tugger is an extended Prince impression (and not that bad as such things go) has carped that his penis got edited out of the movie, making him the only cast member so far to lodge such a complaint. (I’ll be over here just continuously refreshing Ian McKellen’s Twitter).

5. Francesca Hayward Might Be a Movie Star

The biggest change to the material made by Hooper is the promotion of Victoria—a minor character in the stage show—into a kind of protagonist. Literally dropped into the film while wrapped up in a sack, Victoria is revealed to be a white kitten who doesn’t know the rules and rituals of the cat society, and as such, a perfect viewer surrogate. In the stage version, the cats could talk directly to the audience; the whole pretense of the show was that all the explanations of cat protocol were for the benefit of the human interlopers. The movie displaces all of this exposition onto Victoria, which means that Hayward—a 27-year-old who was born in Nairobi and earned the role of principal dancer in London’s Royal Ballet—gets to spend the movie looking wide-eyed and naive, which she does extremely well. As a character, Victoria is a bit of a blank canvas: She’s a cat without qualities or a gimmick. But as a camera subject, she’s sublimely beautiful and she sells the hell out of Andy Blankenbuehler’s athletic, endlessly repetitive choreography, which is meant to convey grace and agility—and does, as long as the professional dancers in the cast are doing it. Cats is a much more physical musical than Les Misérables, so Hooper—who made a big deal about keeping his camera glued to his actors’ quivering lower lips in that one and got Anne Hathaway an Oscar in the process—adopted a more frenetic shooting style. Neither movie works, by the way, but Les Misérables was ultimately less tiring despite being nearly 50 minutes longer.

6. Taylor Swift Should Do a James Bond Theme Song

I’m not made of stone: Watching one of the world’s biggest—and in her way, felinely aloof—pop stars do a PG-rated bump-and-grind while drugging her costars with puffs of catnip was not unentertaining. Maybe because her character stays in the movie only long enough to sing the swinging Kander-and-Ebb pastiche “Macavity,” T-Swift comes off as just relaxed and detached enough to avoid embarrassment by association. And maybe because “Macavity”—which gets my vote for the second-best Cats song after “Memory”—is basically a tribute to supervillainy, it made me think that she should get a crack at a James Bond movie at some point. The same goes, of course, for Idris Elba, who unfortunately does not escape embarrassment by association: Through no real fault of his own, he’s present during the worst scenes, as when Hooper—who, lest we forget, turned out to be a real-life Macavity in 2011 when he stole David Fincher’s Best Director Oscar—cuts helplessly between the main group of cats hanging out in an abandoned theater and the ones kidnapped by Macavity and transported to a barge on the Thames. These bits are truly terrible, to the point that not even Ray Winstone as an evil, chain-wielding “Bravo cat” can make much of a difference.

7. James Corden Is Truly Baffling

I don’t know anything about Corden other than that he does “Carpool Karaoke,” seems to like and care about musical theater, and that despite being a fairly obscure Brit he got a great gig hosting American late-night television, which means that somebody, somewhere likes him. If those people could raise their hands I’d appreciate it, because after seeing him plod and flail around for five minutes in Cats’ most boring scene, I’m looking for answers. What’s even more frustrating is that the two most charmless members of the cast—that’d be Corden and Rebel Wilson—are the ones who’ve been given the potential superpowers of self-reflexivity; they’re the ones who get to joke a bit about being in a movie, and to acknowledge the essential absurdity of the entire setup. While a Cats performed entirely in scare quotes might have been more unbearable than the almost entirely guileless, earnest version we got from Hooper and Co., it’s also possible that a little bit of sarcastic detachment would have gone a long way—provided that it had a better delivery system than Corden and Wilson.

8. Ian McKellen Is a Treasure

McKellen doesn’t really sing in Cats—it’s more like spoken verse, a halting monologue delivered in the character of Gus, the Theatre Cat. Typically, Eliot’s creations don’t get much deeper than their surface designations: For instance, Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat is a cat who lives on a train, and that’s about it. But Gus, both on the page and on the screen, is a figure of pathos—a wizened old performer lamenting the passage of time and the slow fading of his thespian gifts. “His coat’s very shabby, he’s thin as a rake; and he suffers from palsy that makes his paw shake,” writes Eliot, supplementing simple pity with sophisticated compassion; Gus’s condition has damaged his acting instrument but not his spirit. In the stage musical, he metamorphizes into his greatest role, the pirate Growltiger, in a stand-alone operetta that gives Lloyd Webber a chance to parody Gilbert and Sullivan.

The movie excises this bit but lets McKellen keep most of Eliot’s poem as a monologue, including Gus’s wistful reflection on the decline of theatrical standards: “There’s nothing to equal, from what I hear tell, that moment of mystery, when I made history.” It’d be nice to think that somewhere in his superlative reading of these words, McKellen is inveighing against the soulless, phony product he’s agreed to be part of, but that’s not necessarily true; it’s more likely that both he and Dench—who was supposed to be in the original company of Cats but tore a tendon in her ankle—are genuinely enjoying themselves. If so, they’ve earned it, but whatever his motivation, McKellen’s portrayal of an old, seen-it-all actor doing the best he can with what he’s been given out of a sense of pride and joy in his craft is genuinely moving. My Third Eye did not open during “Gus: the Theatre Cat,” but maybe there was a little something in it—dust, probably. That must’ve been it.