“This is maniacal,” Jezebel’s fearless leader Julianne Escobedo Shepherd uttered midway through a staff viewing of Cats, with the production of the Jellicle Ball underway. But maybe she meant, “This is magical.”
Our group viewing of Cats was, of course, set in stone as soon as the trailer hit in July. Jennifer Hudson, Idris Elba, Dame Judi Dench, Rebel Wilson, Jason Derulo, Taylor Swift, Sir Ian McKellen? Lots and lots of fur? There was no way we wouldn’t experience this horror story as a family. Everyone online figured the movie, which is based on the musical, would be bad in the most absolute definition of that word, but how bad? Five of us ventured to a theater in the middle of Times Square and watched as famous actors and musicians enthralled us through song and dance for two hours, performing as cats. There are spoilers ahead, but why let that stop you from reading about the joy of Cats.
As a story, Cats intends to be something more inspiring than what it actually is. I gather that it’s supposed to be about salvation and the promise of redemption. But it’s really a cult story about a group of people who think they are cats, dress and move like cats (they gyrate, they nuzzle); and each year, per tradition under the guise of a Jellicle Ball (where the Jellicle leader Old Deuteronomy, played by Dame Judi Dench, has to make the Jellicle Choice!), they sacrifice one of their cat people, who welcomes death (being sent to the Heavyside Layer) because they believe they’ll be reborn as who they always wanted to be, with no explanation of logistics.
Cats introduces this dark plot after the cat-protagonist Victoria (Francesca Hayward) gets tossed into an alleyway and meets Jellicle cult members who initiate her into the cult through the power of music, convincing her that they’re a magical, romantical, metaphorical group of cats. She believes them because she just wants to be loved and that’s how cults work. (Ever read The Face on the Milk Carton?) Everything the cats do seems intense and important (like the necessity of a cat having three names), and many of the cats are incredibly sultry. But the focus is: Who will become the Chosen Cat?
James Corden plays a fat cat who wants to be reborn as a thin cat. Jason Derulo plays a pop-locking lothario named Rum Tum Tugger. Rebel Wilson is Rebel Wilson as a cat. Ian McKellen is a really old, endearing theater cat. And Idris Elba is the villain cat who wants to become the Jellicle Choice (unclear why he volunteers to die or why he can make cats vanish), but he doesn’t understand that it’s not his choice. I originally thought Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson) had a lot more lines in the movie, but her job is to creep around alleys and spy on the Jellicles because her best days are behind her and she’s a dirty, estranged cat, though there’s no explanation of why or how that happened. From the beginning of the movie, it’s clear that she’s the One, which makes her presence that much sadder. What’s ahead for her is death.
Hudson, in the gravest portrayal of a cat that I’ve ever seen, is in a completely different movie than everyone else (maybe Les Miserables?), and so is Judi Dench, who makes the most of her role with a show of grit. There’s really no plot, though. Cats is a series of musical expositions, and there’s also no real narrative structure or climax, either. But there is a brilliantly absurd ending that involves Jennifer Hudson flying away to her death in a hot air balloon and Judi Dench breaking the fourth wall to sing to us that cats are not dogs. How do the Jellicles know the cats they choose will be reborn and that they’re not just killing it? Or is that the point? It doesn’t matter. They believe in it and in themselves, and so does Jennifer Hudson. That’s the power of religion. —Clover Hope
The Digital Fur Technology, Felinity
When behind-the-scenes footage of Cats was released alongside the first, horrifying trailer in July, the world was introduced to “digital fur technology,” some movie magic that will ostensibly convince an audience in 2019 that Sir Ian McKellen is a bedraggled tomcat named Gus (short for Asparagus). The trailer, which was essentially proof of this technology, did nothing more than demonstrate how impossible it is to make human beings like Taylor Swift or Jennifer Hudson look like a cat. At some point between then and now, someone should have said something. Perhaps this tragedy would’ve been stopped. Perhaps we would have been saved.
It was my task to pay attention to the technology and the CGI in this two-hour spectacle, and I am pleased to report that if Tom Hopper’s intention was to make the entire movie look like it was done in CGI, then congratulations! Much like any other live-action remake of a thing that should not be live-action or exist at all, the whole film’s look was slick and soulless and empty. The female cats, as mentioned, have breasts. Some cats have people-hands and some don’t. The fur is patchy as if there are follicles missing. Sometimes it is lush. To be fair, the long-haired cats looked better than the short-haired cats, but the general texture of the fur overall was matted, tattered and dull. Every cat had whiskers, so that was nice; however, some had mustaches instead of whiskers, which made little to no sense.
A few cats were allowed to wear clothing—why? Dame Judi Dench, who is the only person in this movie who carried this shit off, played Old Deuteronomy and was, for some inexplicable reason, wearing a fur coat that was made of the same fur that she was made of. Setting aside these lapses in logic, I will give credit where credit is due: Old Deuteronomy’s fur was pretty good. I hate that sentence, and I’m sorry. The other nod towards verisimilitude is the matter of the genitals. Jason Derulo, who is RumTumTugger, the pervert, has made a big fuss about the big fuss in his pants and said in an interview that they had to CGI his “bulge” to make it less so. I have seen the Instagram photo. I was hopeful. But all of the cats had no genitalia at all as if they had all taken Khloe Kardashian’s advice and worn a pantiliner to hide the unseemly contours of the downstairs. On real cats, the genitalia is obscured, somewhere in the nasty thicket of the animals’ back end, and therefore technically erased, at least visually. For that, five points. For everything else? NOTHING!! —Megan Reynolds
Overall, watching Cats, I felt largely sympathetic to its lesser-known stars who, despite the hoopla over Jason Derulo and Taylor Swift and Jennifer Hudson, make up the bulk of this cast. And frankly, actors and dancers like Francesca Hayward, a ballerina, have it easier: they can disappear into their grotesque cat bodies, whereas all I can see in other scenes is “this is Rebel Wilson with fur.” That was pretty much the experience of Cats, being confronted with actor after hairy actor, their faces Photoshopped onto a CGI body. Taylor was Taylor, Jason was Jason, Idris was Idris in contact lenses.
A note on the music: it’s fucking weird. Not just because the music itself is bad, to begin with (oh my god, how many times can you say “Jellicle”) and shockingly ’80s (I guess I assumed they’d modernize the music, but it sounds like the soundtrack to Flashdance all the way through), but because it’s bizarrely recorded. Not to be a huge nerd about it, but the sound design in this movie is so off, some vocals play like a whisper fighting with the rest of the music, and everyone sounds like a weak singer trying to eke out a few notes. But it works, I guess, given the deathly seriousness of everyone in the cast. Sure, the first three-quarters of the movie is playful and kind of creepy, but once we hit the cat “ball” where every character has to defend their right to go to heaven (which seems to just be a glossed over ritual murder, but okay), every actor was wrenching any tear they could get. The question on everyone’s mind is: is Cats so bad it’s good, or just bad? And I would say when the movie nose-dives into a drama, the actors curling around each other with gross, completely unearned earnestness, it’s absolutely hilarious.
Judi Dench plays every Judi Dench character she’s ever played, except as a furball, and how can you not laugh? When Jennifer Hudson is bawling in the streets singing “Memory,” as if any of us have any idea what the fuck is going on, it’s perfect. Basically, here’s a meme I made about the tone of performance I needed more of from Cats.
As we walked into the theater, we spied several moviegoers dressed as Star Wars characters, which I’ve learned over the years is something that people do. Would anyone in the audience for Cats come in a full-on cat bodysuit? Cats has been universally panned, but true fans would show up on this night, the opening night. One woman showed up in cat ears. Nice try, but yawn. A man in a very cat-like faux-fur head ornament finally did enter, and I whispered, yes, and made a note to find him after it was over. I can only assume he was the person periodically meowing during the previews, and possibly the one person in the half-empty theater who clapped as the movie began. At least someone was looking forward to it!
Cats the movie is so absurd, so terrible, without any self-awareness of just how awful it is, that the only way to make the experience of seeing Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Judi Dench gamely embrace “felinity” bearable is to laugh. (I use the actors’ actual names, and not the names of their characters because I: 1) cannot for the life of me remember the names of their cats, and 2) you are keenly aware as you watch Cats that you’re seeing Dame Fucking Judi Dench decked out in whiskers and oddly disturbing cat ears.) Here are all the scenes during which we laughed so we wouldn’t cry:
- Sir Ian McKellen meowing
- Sir Ian McKellen lapping up water, or possibly milk
- Dame Judi Dench sticking her fur-covered leg up in the air
- Really, every time Dame Judi Dench was onscreen
- Jason Derulo hissing
- Jennifer Hudson singing “Memories” as if she were in a totally different, very dramatic movie, her cat-face in a grimace of extreme emotional anguish
By the time Dame Judi Dench soberly told a snot-covered Jennifer Hudson, “You are the Jellicle choice,” before sending her off to what I can only assume is her death, what few people there were in the audience were laughing hysterically and continuously. None of us could believe what we were watching on the screen! (Sidenote: Am I the only one who thought Taylor Swift’s cat was the main white cat for the entire movie and was extremely confused when she showed up later on as the other cat?) Afterward, I caught up with the man who came as a cat. His name is Ryan, and he’s a “super fan” who has seen the musical five times, and the recording of the live Broadway performance many more times than that. His favorite scene was the Jellicle Ball, he told me, but even he couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of it all. —Esther Wang
Watching Sober Vs. High
One thing that is interesting about me is that at the moment, I’m one of the only people in the world who has elected to watch Cats twice, as it’s only been hours since its release and I was able to catch a press screening earlier this week. Given the response, I may end up being one of the only people in the world who has elected to watch Cats twice ever. We’ll see. I watched this completely sober the first time (and really did not enjoy it). But after having a marijuana cookie before my second viewing, I can confidently report that Cats is much better when you are high on marijuana! It’s still pretty boring, of course. The music does not make full use of the speaker system—it has been mixed not to knock for some ungodly reason. You still have to put up with Rebel Wilson and James Corden not just being there but… attempting to riff through the CGI? It seems like a lot of half-assed improv bits were just… left in? None of them are remotely funny? There are three separate jokes using the phrase “Puss in Spats”????
But this time, I did think about this Cats differently, which is to say, I thought about it more. Generally, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing despite having seen it before and days ago. I thought about why Judi Dench’s Old Deuteronomy wore a coat the same color (and virtually same texture) as her actual fur (her O.G. “coat”), and then I wondered where the body stopped and the coat began and perhaps if it was all attached inside. Maybe it wasn’t a coat, just lumpy skin. I thought about why Rebel Wilson thought she should be singing and, more broadly, why people think they have to do everything. Just do some things! I thought it was funny that after “Grizabella the Glamour Cat,” a song in which the words “Grizabella the Glamour Cat” are repeated ad nauseam, Victoria asked, “Who was she?” Open your CGI ears, Victoria! She’s Grizabella the Glamour Cat. I thought about how “Mr. Mistoffelees” is an utter tune that no amount of botched mixing can obscure. Wow, what a great thing to have in my head, one of the greatest songs of all time, “Mr. Mistoffelees.” I thought about how one of the ultimate assertions of Cats, as stated in the closing number “Finale: The Ad-Dressing of Cats,” is that a cat… is not a dog. Thank you for clarifying, Cats.
Mostly, I had fun. For a good 90 or so minutes, the people we sat amongst stifled their laughter (I did as well), I suppose, out of respect for the material and the celebrities who work so hard to keep us entertained. But during Jennifer Hudson’s sniveling “Memory,” the audience we were in just lost it. I mean, this number is constructed to be the emotional climax of this movie and people were whooping and cackling. I think the reaction shots of Judi Dench, who showed the fuck up and attempted to telegraph compassion for every single ridiculous thing that was happening in what I have decided is actually an amazing performance, are what finally did me in. It was like a dam broke and the crowd spent the rest of the movie giddy, oftentimes crying out in laughter. If you’re curious what that sounded like, here’s a snippet:
After I watched Cats sober, I thought, “Well, I never want to see that again.” After watching it high, I’m thinking more like: “Oh well I never, was there ever a cat so clever as magical Mr. Mistoffelees?” And I mean it. —Rich Juzwiak
I understand the odd choice to render the Cats actors in plasticky-looking CGI fur: The muppet-like costumes of the stage show would have been just too campy to reach the middling critical mass this film needs to earn back its unnecessarily massive budget, and also the first rule of Hollywood is that if you have access to digital effects in post, you must use them, no matter how egregious. But the uncatty-valley surrealism of the fur was upended by the fact that the cats had human feet—the hands, I get, but something about seeing people-toes doing chaîné turns really broke continuity for me—and boobs but no weiners, which didn’t do much to help the narrative that almost every one of these cats is apparently horny out of control.
There were few costume choices I loved, though, like Old Deuteronomy’s fluffy coat, regal with a long train and made of fur I presumed to be ethically sourced since Old Deuteronomy probably killed and ate whatever meat came inside it (she’s a cat). Rum Tum Tugger wore a Jesus piece but instead of Jesus, it was a fishbone, which was on-brand and a little goth. Skimbleshanks flossed his red trousers and suspenders in perhaps the only enjoyable scene in a dreadfully flat movie that doesn’t even work as a time capsule to the post-acid ’70s performance art of the original. And Bombalurina was wearing Mary Jane high heels while she roofied the rest of the cats, which was disorienting and reminded me of the people’s feet. They needed either no CGI or about 97 percent more CGI. The best-dressed person was the superfan in the 42nd Street Regal Theater wearing Cats (Broadway) cosplay. —Julianne Escobedo Shepherd