The fantastic thing about Cats is that there is no good way to make a movie adaptation of it, but there are a million bad ways and Tom Hooper chose all of them.
The songs will always be nonsense, but here awful sound mixing also muffles the lyrics until you wonder if you’re having a stroke. We might not get any plot to latch onto, but we get so many insufferable ad-libs from Rebel Wilson and James Corden. The concept might be bizarre, but at least it’s made more disorienting with grotesque CGI that’s an offense to God and man. It’s an unfathomably terrible attempt at achieving a goal that was doomed from the start. I think the only way to make this project work even a little is to go back in time and assassinate Andrew Lloyd Webber.
That’s clearly impossible because if it weren’t, someone would surely have done it already. So we live in a timeline in which Andrew Lloyd Webber did adapt a book of nonsensical cat poems meant for children into a horny sung-through abomination. And Tom Hooper, Academy Award-winning director, did say “I should adapt that musical for the screen,” and he spent 95 million human American dollars to do so.
Cats is essentially Jabberwocky: the Musical! — it’s gibberish by design, and you’re just supposed to get caught up in the spectacle. The experience of watching it is akin to watching a dazzling show in another language without subtitles and trying to suss out if there’s a through-line happening. There mostly isn’t. A tribe of cats called the Jellicles gather for the annual Jellicle Ball where the oldest and wisest cat will choose which cat will get magicked up to the Heaviside Layer to get a new life. No context is ever provided for any of the concepts described in that sentence. You just have to go with it. Andrew Lloyd Webber is a tremendous dork and he believed in this concept and we’ve all been suffering for decades because of it.
In the stage show, flamboyant costumes, imaginative sets, and impressive dance numbers provide the razzle-dazzle to hopefully captivate the audience. I will admit that when I saw the musical as a 7-year-old, I simply loved it, because people dancing around in goofy animal costumes is literally all I would want at that age. As an adult with taste, however, the show is a lot like its Hey Arnold! parody.
In another universe, I imagine that a visionary could make a Fantasia-like adaptation of Cats with gorgeous animated sequences tapping into the emotionality of the music. Intentionally surreal art could elevate the material and acknowledge its camp. But today’s studios aren’t interested in films that blend beautiful traditional animation with stirring music. And that’s awesome, actually, because it means we got THIS version of Cats, the kind of lightning-in-a-bottle fiasco that comes along very rarely. It’s a clusterfuck and I’m obsessed with it. It is fully at The Room’s level of incomprehensibly wrong decision-making, but with the added draw of an enormous budget and A-list cast.
I think Tom Hooper may be an auteur, and I firmly believe that he should never be allowed to make a movie again, and I am so grateful that he did make this movie. I can hold all of these ideas in my head at one time because I have been emboldened by seeing Cats in a sparsely attended afternoon showing with the entire audience gasping with laughter at every serious scene, recoiling in horror at every playful one, and intermittently letting out noises of shock and disgust. It was organic and very beautiful. Tom Hooper should be put in jail.
Tom Hooper also adapted Les Misérables, a dramatic musical about desperate people struggling for revolution, and he famously decided to have his actors sing live on set instead of to a pre-recorded track to enhance the realism of this gritty tale. This same man, a onetime recipient of the Oscar for Best Director for his work on a film that won the Oscar for Best Picture, decided that the same technique should apply to Cats, a show about cats having a party. Poor Jennifer Hudson, a powerhouse performer who deserves so much more than this, told Motherfucking Vogue about the experience.
The process, as Hudson recalls, was physically exhausting. “I sang “Memory” 35 or 36 times, for two days straight,” she says. “At one point—because it’s so emotional—I fell asleep between takes, only to wake up seeing Tom standing over me—and I just started singing it again!”
This approach paid off as well as every other choice made in the film, which is to say it didn’t and caused visible distress in the audience. Hudson’s Grizabella is the most pathetically sad character I have ever seen in a film. I couldn’t get this interview out of my mind when watching her crawl on all fours in scene after scene, sniffling and dragging her raggedy coat. I pictured Tom Hooper looming over her, screaming “AGAIN, BUT EVEN SADDER!” until she collapsed once more from exhaustion. You know that she’ll be Old Deuteronomy’s Jellicle Choice for the Heaviside Layer at the Jellicle Ball — this is common knowledge to everyone, and those words make sense — but that choice simply can’t come soon enough. As Hudson bellows “Memory” for the second time, her voice ragged and breaking like her spirit after singing it 35 times for two days straight, it feels cruel to keep her character around. The audience longs for Judi Dench to yeet her into the sky, away from her misery on this plane of existence, merciful euthanasia by hot air balloon.
Hudson’s torturous singing is but one example of the way that a film packed with talent manages to use everyone’s talent badly. The body of former Sexiest Man Alive Idris Elba is made repulsive with shiny fur rippling over his muscles. Grammy Award-winning songwriter Taylor Swift contributes an original song that elicited audible groans in the screening, its maudlin pop melodrama completely out of place among songs with Seussian lyrics like “Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer have a very unusual gift of the gab!” and “Skimble, where is Skimble? Has he gone to hunt the thimble? We must find him or the train can’t start!”
You might marvel at the bulging muscles and double-jointed moves of human dance sensations Les Twins in the human world, but cats with bulging muscles and double-jointed moves are a disgusting sight. Ian McKellen turns in a performance that is too moving, too emotionally resonant for the film. He performs the role of Gus the Theatre Cat with such fragility that I began panicking, wondering if the actor himself was in desperately poor health. Presumably he was suffering from the same illness as Jennifer Hudson: Tom Hooper’s direction.
I hate Tom Hooper for conceiving of this project. I hate him for the times I flinched when I saw an actor’s human face slide slightly off from its feline body, a CGI glitch that occurred over and over. I hate the convictions embedded into my brain when I left the showing — I know, for instance, that Munkustrap, Victoria the White Cat, and Mr. Mistoffelees formed a throuple after the events of the film, and I hate that I can defend that thesis if necessary. I absolutely hate that Grizabella is lifted up to her Heaviside-bound hot air balloon by chandelier, because get it?? It’s an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical so there’s a big crashed chandelier, but this one goes up!
Intellectually, I despise Tom Hooper for all of this, but of course I’m lying.
Nothing has brought me more joy than everything about Cats, from the news that they would be spending millions of dollars to construct giant practical sets to the experience of sitting in a theater and realizing that all that money was wasted because the shoddy CGI made the whole thing look like a video game anyway.
I love the way Cats was promoted! So much! I laughed at the initial release of this teaser trailer, in which the famous people speak reverently about the opportunity to appear in this important piece of art. It’s ten million times funnier to watch it after seeing the horrifying end product. I watched James Corden’s loathsome comic relief character snarf down badly rendered CGI food out of garbage cans, and I involuntarily cried “UGH!” when the tails of all cats went erect in unison during an orgiastic dance sequence, and I had to see Dame Judi Dench, an international treasure, be told to “walk the plank.” I have experienced the swirling mess of confusion and fur that Tom Hooper here calls “a timely story about the importance of inclusion and redemption.”
It’s astonishing! In this same clip, Taylor Swift says, “We got to update it in ways that I think are just so, so, so great” and “I just was so excited and honored to get to be a part of this.” And she proudly said on the red carpet at the premiere “You can’t spell Cats without T.S.,” a mind-blowing level of ownership for this disaster! And just minutes after making that statement, she took her professional actor boyfriend into a theater to see her, covered in fur, shaking her big ol’ kitties and Britishly belting things like “Macavity’s a ginger cat” about Idris Elba, who is playing a cat who is not remotely ginger but it’s fine because nothing matters. I love it all, it fuels me.
I have no words for how much I love the seriousness with which Jason Derulo conducted this interview to promote the film. “I did a bunch of character work for myself to figure out who he was to me,” this endearing dummy says in this profile. “I think he puts on an act of how confident he is and how much he loves himself, but he has a really big disorder where he cannot stay focused on one thing too long.” God bless!!!!!!!!
$95 million is a lot to waste on a film with no artistic value, and it would be cool if Hollywood had taken some of that money and gave it to directors who aren’t white men with no discernible talent. But we live in hell, in a timeline in which Andrew Lloyd Webber did create Cats and no one stopped him, and studios throw cash at very uninspired things all the time now. Usually that means that millions of dollars get spent on making dead-eyed photorealistic animals recreate beloved intellectual properties without any of the joy and innovation that made those properties beloved. It’s all very grim.
But we must keep in mind that the moral arc of the universe is long and it’s hopefully bending towards justice, but it occasionally spikes randomly off the chart into a chaotic amoral no-mans-land where there is no justice, no reason, and no standards against which to compare our art. And when that happens, we should consider ourselves lucky. All we can do is enjoy the thrill of the spectacle, a film that is bad in every possible way including every entertaining one.
Jennifer Hudson, the Cassandra of Cats, said in that teaser trailer that this movie would be “AN EVENT.” In that Vogue feature, she said, “Now this is real movie magic—I feel that it will become part of people’s lives and their holiday traditions.” I laughed at her back then, in a different time in my life, when I had not yet seen Cats. Many people should apologize to Jennifer Hudson, most of all Tom Hooper, but I will as well. I shouldn’t have laughed. Jennifer Hudson knew. She sang “Memory” for a madman until her body gave out and she ascended to the Heaviside Layer for our sins, and the result, I have to admit, is movie magic. Not in the way that was intended, but in a way that is magical nonetheless. It is inextricably part of my life. I think it would make a very fun holiday tradition.
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