In defense of ‘Cats’
Disclaimer: the following article is a defense of the motion picture musical “Cats,” not of the species; I do not — and never have — liked actual cats.
Over the Christmas/Hanukkah holiday, like a miniscule fraction of the planet’s population, I found myself sharing in the collective experience of viewing “Cats.” The film first made waves this past July, when Universal Pictures released a teaser for Tom Hooper’s cinematic adaptation of the somehow-beloved Andrew Lloyd Weber musical. The trailer left the internet unsure of whether it should laugh, cry or drop everything it was doing and just run for cover. This is the reaction one might expect for a trailer complete with CGI fur-clad Academy Award-winning and nominated actors Dame Judi Dench, Sir Ian McKellen and Jennifer Hudson, accompanied by Hudson’s oversung rendition of the classic tune “Memory.” And it wasn’t just the internet that was abuzz; at the Hollywood studio where I worked this summer, an executive ran through the halls, telling everybody to drop what they were doing to see the anomaly that was the trailer for “Cats.” While “Cats” looked like it would be an absolute atrocity, it is hard to deny that anybody who saw July’s teaser was at the very least intrigued.
When the film first screened for critics, the months-long online bashing of “Cats” reached a fever pitch. Reviews calling it “worryingly erotic” and “dredged from the uncanny valley of horror” came pouring in, and I was left with burning questions: Is “Cats” just the internet’s latest punching bag? Is it truly as bad as the critics say? Is it something else entirely? A pursuit for the truth drove me to the theater two weeks into the film’s run, where I was shocked to enter a half-full auditorium for a movie that was making headlines for screening to empty houses across the globe. Sure, the guy sitting next to me was drinking whisky out of a Poland Spring bottle; yes, the man in front of me was Face Timing the movie to his family for its entire two-hour duration. That’s all part of the experience of seeing “Cats,” a film that I contend deserves a charitable reading. That is, while “Cats” is by no means a great piece of cinema, one cannot deny that it is a singular vision. I daresay we have never seen a movie like “Cats” before, and we never will again.
So, is “Cats” as bad as they say?
Well, that all depends on what your criteria for a bad movie are. Generally speaking, one can judge a film’s success in two ways:
A. How fully a director realizes their own vision.
B. Whether the audience feels satisfied by the director’s realization of their vision, regardless of how full that realization is on the director’s part.
Typically, I find myself in the “A” camp, failing to find redeeming qualities in a movie once I become conscious of its flaws. What I find so fascinating about “Cats” is that it is one of the few movies that I enjoy for its fulfillment of both criteria; not only do I think that Tom Hooper’s film is a fully realized vision (which I will explain in a moment), but I think that his vision, however bonkers it may be, is exactly what makes the movie bearable.
I think that the most unfair assessment of the film version of “Cats” is the criticism that it lacks a coherent plot. If it is worth extending that critique to anything or anybody beyond the stage version of “Cats,” such lambasting should go to the Universal executives who green-lit the movie to begin with, not the director or any of the actors involved with the film. The film version makes little effort to justify a nearly two-hour runtime dedicated to musical numbers where cats vie to be picked as the “Jellicle Choice,” chosen once a year by Old Deuteronomy, an elderly cat, to ascend to the “Heavyside Layer” for a chance at a new life. In criticizing this cinematic musical, what matters is how Mr. Hooper brought the material to the screen. And I think that his adaptation —intentionally or not — embodies an aesthetic worthy of the lofty lunacy demonstrated by its source material. Such a result was probably inevitable. This reading of the film handily explains the inclusion of its most ludicrous scenes, such as an early one in which furry Rebel Wilson eats cockroaches with human faces and unzips her fur (only to reveal a second layer underneath it). Oh, and one mustn’t forget the introduction of Judi Dench’s Old Deuteronomy, in which her character is fawned over by a nightmarish orgy of human-kitty hybrids, who follow her up the stairs of an abandoned theater in what’s supposed to be London.
In their lambasting of the film’s singularity, the legions of online “Cats” haters fail to consider a response beyond hatred, and neglect to embrace the film for being a failure almost infinitely unique. In fact, “Cats” is nearly $100 million worth of unique. No movie this bad in recent memory has had so many good resources at its disposal. Sure, “Jupiter Ascending” had Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis and a great visual effects team, but it didn’t have a laundry list of talent as stacked as “Cats,” which boasted a great effects team, an Oscar-winning director, two Oscar-winning actors, the biggest pop star on Earth, the choreographer of Hamilton, beloved source material (whether I like to admit it or not) and the full backing of one of the largest studios in Hollywood. And that is precisely what propels “Cats” into “so-bad-it’s-good” territory: we have never seen a bad movie of such monumental scale. No film in history has been given so many opportunities to go wrong, and went wrong at every turn. “Cats” is the “What Not to Wear” of filmmaking, but we still enjoy “What Not to Wear,” do we not?
To witness the fruits of the “Cats” creative team’s labor is to watch thousands of people at the height of their powers, giving 150%, and firing blanks from all cylinders despite their best efforts. “Cats” is a monumental train wreck, but it is nevertheless monumental. And judging by its poor box office receipts, we will never see the likes of it again. But, like Dame Judi’s Old Deuteronomy designating the Jellicle Choice, I judge a cat by its soul. You can count me in for the inevitable midnight screenings of “Cats” coming to your local landfill, where I will most likely be in the same fit of hysterical tears that overcame me the first time I survived watching the movie, feeling my life to be forever changed all over again upon hearing Jason Derulo gleefully scream, “MILK!”