Musicals are inherently absurd creations. People don’t sing their feelings in real life, after all. Because they work as the antithesis to reality, the best musicals can create sights & sounds you’d never see in another medium of creative expression. Avenue Q, for example, where else could you see a puppet show that doesn’t even try to conceal that the puppets are being operated by people? Or how about Little Shop of Horrors or The SpongeBob SquarePants Musical? Both thrive on unabashed weirdness! Such strange yet enjoyably bold creativity is why I love musicals. When people think of musical oddness, though, one go-to reference point might be Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1981 musical Cats.
Long a source of both scorn and massive box office success, Cats has been something even the most ardent lovers of avant-garde theater have long dismissed as just nonsense. The world of stage productions is where the abnormal is usually the norm. However, even here, the sight of people in elaborate feline makeup and costumes singing an assortment of whimsical standalone tunes faintly united by a murky plot has widely been seen as a bunch of empty weirdness. If it had trouble translating into a stage production, one can imagine how Cats fares as a theatrically-released feature-film adaptation that actually tries to tie things together in a threadbare story.
Based on the poems found in the T.S. Eliot text Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, Cats begins with Victoria (Francesca Hayward) being abandoned by her owner. Thrust into the unknown world of being a cat without a household, Victoria meets the Jellicle Cats. What exactly is a Jellicle Cat? Well, these felines proceed to launch into a tune about Jellicle Cats that proceeds to provide more questions than actual answers. We do learn that there are only a few hours to go until some kind of Jellicle Ball transpires, during which Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) will choose one cat to ascend to a higher form of existence.
From there, Cats has Victoria watch as a slew of cats, most played by big-name celebrities like James Corden or Ian McKellen and who say their names more often than your average Pokemon, introduce themselves and their colorful personalities. Whereas the stage show provided very little connective tissue between the assorted musical numbers beyond the Jellicle Ball, Lee Hall and Tom Hooper’s script (the latter of the duo also directs) provides amusingly obligatory pieces of connective tissue between the songs. These emerge mostly in the form of Victoria wandering into brief run-ins with characters that will become important later on. Moments where Cats wants these little recurring storylines to drum up emotions in the viewer fall ever so flat. Moviegoers watching Cats are not here for poignancy, we’re here for depraved weirdness! Also providing unity across the chaos is Idris Elba’s baddie Macavity. He shows up throughout using his magic powers to teleport away cats who might get to heaven(?) instead of himself.
Cats is a puzzling production in how its both a cynical cash-grab and also a go-for-broke exercise in cinematic weirdness. On the one hand, Cats is a brand name so well-known that it’s shocking Hollywood hasn’t plundered it prior to this point while Tom Hooper doing another musical is a clear attempt to replicate the box office & award season success of Les Miserables. Meanwhile, the character designs of the Cats are outright terrible because of the decision to make sure the human faces of the famous human actors are visible. This means the majority of the Cats characters look like bipedal felines with distractingly human faces hovering above their bodies. They look like creatures from Re-Animator more than anything else!
Making visually appealing character designs has been thrown out entirely in favor of making sure Cats can easily put James Corden’s face on its poster. Similarly underwhelming when it comes to the visual effects used to realize the cats in Cats is the choice to use motion-capture for their movements. Great uses of motion-capture can give you a Gollum, bad uses of motion-capture can give you Welcome to Marwen or Mars Needs Moms. Cats is the latter case, aside from much of the dancing, the movements of the felines are stiff-looking. A gag involving Rebel Wilson’s cat character swinging a chain around in the third act is totally ruined through the shockingly lifeless movements of the characters.
As if the faces weren’t enough to distract viewers, the poorly-executed motion capture will ensure audiences can never buy these cats as actual cats. On the other more admirable hand, Cats is also a movie that throws caution to the wind in terms of appearing remotely serious. An early visual where Macavity leaps onto a sign that transforms into a Wanted poster saying “Macavity: Wanted For Everything” immediately alerts the viewer as to what kind of movie they’re in for. Cats is unbridled nonsense, the fever dream of a theater kid obsessed with Grumpy Cat memes and it has no shame about it. Exhibit A for this lack of shame: Taylor Swift descends from the heaven to spray catnip on cats while delivering a rendition of the song Macavity so sultry it might as well be the Let Me Good To You musical number from The Great Mouse Detective.
The bold weirdness of Cats is more admirable in concept than it is in the final products underwhelming execution for a myriad of reasons. For one thing, director Tom Hooper, though ditching the repetitive camera angle choices of Les Miserables, still struggles with properly filming musical numbers. His camerawork is oddly restrained for a movie that’s otherwise throwing restraint out into the window, you need a director whose less buttoned-up for a movie like this one that screams Big Chaotic Gay Energy. For another, this darn thing runs on way too long, there’s way too much dead time to be found even in a project this outlandish thanks to a 110-minute runtime. Plus, the problems that always hindered the stage version of this show, chiefly the fact that the lyrics of the assorted songs eventually become indistinguishable from one another, are still around to drag down this newest take on Cats. Director Tom Hooper and company were clearly aiming for Cats to be another musical box office & award season darling like La La Land or Chicago. What they’ve made instead is a star-studded mess whose commitment to weirdness is equal parts impressive and jaw-droppingly ill-advised. What else is there to be said about Cats beyond the fact that it’s the best movie of 2019 featuring Jason Derulo as a cat belting out a musical number?