Reviews and reactions to Tom Hooper’s Cats are comparable to an international tragedy. Critics and audiences are describing feelings of shock and horror, being uncomfortably mesmerized, and begging for the sweet release of death in order to escape the timeline in which we currently live. The box office is abysmal, with Universal Pictures set to lose $100 million on the film; audiences aren’t even seeing it out of morbid curiosity, instead they’re just avoiding it completely. It is, by all accounts, a cinematic disaster.
No one is surprised by this, either. The reactions to the first trailers, with their “digital fur technology” and strange anatomical hybrids, were just as bleak. From its first look, Cats was a punchline, and the joke only continued when the movie was released in December. And yet, I was always rooting for the film to surprise people and, after seeing the film, I became what appears to be the 7th person in the world to actually enjoy it. And, no, this article isn’t to convince you to like it (I certainly understand why people don’t like humans dressed as cats belting out their resumes), this is simply an explanation of why I didn’t mind it and why I’m fascinated that the reaction has been so unanimously negative.
- It’s Basically The Show
From the moment a film adaptation of Cats was announced, I was excited. I’ve always been intrigued by the concept, and the fact that it’s been able to endure for so long. People don’t believe me when I say I thought the Cats movie was going to surprise people but, hear me out. It’s a big-budget screen adaptation of one of the most successful stage musicals of all time: Fourth longest-running show in Broadway history, fourth longest-running show in West End history, a weird idea that has managed to maintain its place in the culture for decades. And on top of that, the movie was being directed by an Academy Award-winning director (Tom Hooper, who won Best Director and Best Picture for The King’s Speech). Its cast, while a bonkers assortment of people, included Oscar winners, Grammy winners, and the principal dancer of the freaking London Royal Ballet. The effects certainly looked crazy, but the main concept of the show is human cats so…it was always gonna be weird.
Which brings me to my first, and central, point: the Cats movie is not that different from the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical that’s been box office gold since 1976. In fact, the movie is a much more faithful adaptation than I was expecting.
Many critics have pointed out the film’s concept, effects, and weird storyline. While I can’t really defend the effects (which have now been updated), both the concept and storyline are both straight-up aspects of the show. I’ve seen reviews horrifically recount a scene where cat-Rebel Wilson commands an army of cockroaches. And while that is a sentence I never thought I’d type, it’s also in the lyrics of the show – and in the T.S. Elliott book of poems it’s based on. And that’s a good example of why I didn’t hate the movie. As someone who’s seen the 90’s filmed-on-stage VHS version, listened to the cast recording, and seen the show live…I didn’t really witness anything that I wasn’t expecting. And what I find really interesting about the reaction is that 90% of the comments critics are making about the movie, are actually criticisms of the musical.
There are some changes made. They try to add a plot by making Victoria an abandoned cat and the lead character (which is actually kind of cool). They also add a new song by Taylor Swift which is nice, but – like most “added for the movie” songs- doesn’t justify its existence. They expand the musical’s junkyard setting to a wide array of establishments and abandoned buildings. But all in all, it’s pretty much the same show and, knowing what to expect, I didn’t experience the fever dream that everyone else seemed to. I had seen the trailers, so I knew what the effects looked like. I knew the songs that they were going to sing…did no one else have the same experience as me?
- It’s People Pretending to Be Cats
On my second viewing (yes, I did), I had the interesting experience of sitting between my 10-year-old cousin and a grown woman who was clearly a fan of the show. My cousin was excited to see the movie, first of all, because – as a child – he didn’t experience the whole “WTF WHY ARE THESE CATS HUMAN” situation, he just accepted it as children do. That being said, he did fall asleep because yeah, Cats gets really boring. It starts off strong and exciting and then it becomes ballad city for a good hour. But that is, again, a problem with the show and not the film. The woman next to me was living her best life, trying as hard as she could not to belt out all the words, which again reinforces my point. As a person who was into the show, she got exactly what she came for. The concept is always gonna be weird, and if hearing the logline turns you off, you will simply not enjoy it – regardless of the medium.
Now, on that note, I know you may be thinking “well maybe it just didn’t need to be a movie”, and I won’t fight you on that. It’s a fact that not everything that works on stage translates well to screen. But I’m also not entirely sure I agree here. I think that somewhere, in another universe, there is a really great live-action adaptation of Cats, where the effects truly create something we’ve never seen before, like back in the days where people were amazed by realistic dinosaurs or space battles. Hooper’s film could have made better choices, particularly musically, and probably could have benefited from being more self-aware and taking itself less seriously. But the stuff that’s creepy in the movie is creepy in the show. The stuff that works in the show, mostly works in the movie. At least personally, I liked the opening number as much I like it on stage, and I hated Bustopher Jones and his song as much as I hate them on stage.
- My Jellicle Fascination
I guess what I’m saying about this movie is that I’m not surprised that people hated it, but I’m surprised that a relatively faithful film adaptation of an ever-lasting worldwide phenomenon would be so quickly dismissed as “bad”. Everyone immediately assumed that it would be terrible, despite the legacy of the show. Critics are tearing apart the same lack of plot that won the musical Tony Awards (including Best Musical). No one is discussing what makes the movie “not good”, they’re just getting in their best punchlines about how crazy the experience was.
Let me also clarify, I didn’t love this movie. But I did enjoy it, and not in a “oh my God it’s a trainwreck and I loved every second” way that my friends seem to think I mean, but in a genuine way. I also don’t love the show, but I do enjoy its weirdness and its concept. I enjoy most of its music and the way that Grizabella pops in and out, gets shade thrown at her, and then belts out the song that wins her the Jellice Choice. I think the movie tells the story just as well, if not while suffering from wonky effects and lackluster choreography. I think everyone plays their parts relatively well. I’ve always hated Gus the Theatre Cat’s boring ass song, so I didn’t enjoy it any more when Sir Ian McKellen did it. But I’ve always loved Macavity’s song, so when Taylor popped up to do her “I only have three days to shoot this, I’m literally releasing an album” scene, I was into it.
And I think that the changes made to Victoria’s story makes the movie’s themes of finding a chosen family actually pretty strong. She gets thrown into this strange new world, finds love and acceptance, and manages to pay that forward to a societal outcast. And boy-oh-boy did they find a star in Francesca Hayward. Part of the tragedy of the film’s reception is the idea that we won’t be seeing more of her, because for someone who’s mainly a ballet dancer, she gave a pitch perfect performance both acting and singing.
Again, I’m not here to convince you that you should love the Cats movie. Or even really to convince you to see it. And there are choices made by the filmmakers that I can’t defend: the effects being one, giving away the literal musical climax in its first trailer, the undefined size of the carts compared to their environments, opening next to STAR WARS??? THE HELL???
I am instead here to say, it is possible to like this film. Especially if you like and are familiar with the musical that it’s based on. Cats has always been weird. Andrew Lloyd Webber famously responded to a reporter who asked if his new show was a metaphor for anything, “no it’s about cats.” And there you have it. Cats is people dressed as cats, singing and dancing and introducing themselves for two hours. And it was always going to be that, so I find the level of shock everyone’s experiencing strange…what did you think it was going to be? Has the world lost its Memory? Open up…enter in…