IN FULL DEFENSE OF CATS (2019) by Gabriel Evans
It’s January 4th, and I just got out of a screening of Cats — and I’m not sure whether it’s (#1) my fully lowered expectations based on an almost unanimous critical and audience panning of this movie, or (#2) because I saw the stage musical for the first time this year and personally was genuinely confused by the plot or what was happening — but I think it actually worked as a movie.
Oh my gosh, he didn’t hate it. #shocking, or something.
Forever I have known Cats as the musical where people wear spandex and sing as cats on a stage, but really knew nothing more until this year. I remember watching the last season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and Cats is used as a hilarious plot point, and then I got a little more of a glimpse at the freak show behind the curtain — and what I gleaned from that was that the musical has gone past the weird, eccentric, artsy beginnings and has transcended past parody as being “that weird cats musical with that ‘Memory’ song”, and now it is in that strange post-post modern period where it’s just something that didn’t need to be touched in any serious way, but now that it has been, it is in a new stage of parody – where people will fully brush it aside and laugh at the concept of it being made with their decision already made before entering the theatre, and may not want to recognize that it’s actually pretty well done and accomplishes a faithful adaptation of the source material and visualizes it in a way that makes it more comprehensible and entertaining than the stage production.
Hot take, I know.
When I think about how the movie came to exist, I’m only working with hypotheticals — but it seems to me like the movie musical we deserve right now from Hollywood. It’s a star-studded cast, with a Oscar-caliber director with a history of Oscar-winning musicals, with Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson singing the classic song, with new technology applied to actors and cool set designs…. If this movie had come out 10-20 years ago, it would be nominated for everything, but now we think we’re too cool for it — so now it’s garbage.
It’s funny, because last year Green Book won as Best Picture, and a lot of the same elements apply to people’s criticisms about that movie. It didn’t feel like Best Picture of 2018, it felt like Best Picture of 1998. The only main differentiators were that the director was a comedy director gone drama, and the writer ended up, let’s say, stretching the truth about the story. But structurally, Green Book works as a movie, and honestly, so does Cats.
Cats hate really feels like where we are in society right now – we’re just really divisive and have made up our minds without ever really giving it a chance. It’s like Cats is what a democrat thinks of when he turns on Fox News, and vice versa if you’re a republican. We can’t see past the poster, because we don’t want to. Cats is it’s own special kind of freak show, and we’re in the mindset to reject the freak right now. Any real message of seeing the true side of someone’s character in the Cats narrative is discounted, because we’ve all got a little bit of a fighting, close-minded bully in us right now.
Now, in terms of adaptations — I feel like there is more to be said for what works in Cats.
I remember leaving the stage production of Cats, and my review was “Oh, so it basically was a bunch of Cats singing introductory songs about each other” – and this movie takes that a step further and gives you the source material in a way that diversifies the visuals, expands the world into different environments, and makes the villain and general plot line comprehensible in a way that didn’t initially strike me during the stage production.
The source material isn’t really conducive to a movie plot, because each song is a different cat, and it probably would work better as some kind of short-form multi-episode web-series than a movie if you really step back and think about it — but as a feature adaptation of the musical – it does the absolute best it could do in translating the magic of Cats to the big screen.
All of the cats and the celebs playing them give personality to their characters, and you do get a sense of their celebrity enhancing the personality – whether it’s James Corden or Rebel Wilson, or even a British-accented Jason Derulo. The plot is linear with a clear antagonist and a ticking clock set for a climax at the end of the evening – so in terms of watchability, it’s not confusing narratively. The only thing to do to clarify the plot would be to put some kind of Star Wars type scroll at the beginning defining what a Jellicle cat is – because it’s such an important part that can be alienating to someone who has never heard or seen anything about the musical.
The effects were fine – I’m not sure if I saw the updated version or not, but I definitely did still see Judi Dench’s wedding ring, but they weren’t distracting. They felt like part of the style, and it was like they were animated cat people – which is the actual, obvious point. Did I feel like I was watching cats? No. Was I supposed to have the same feeling as the first time I saw Gollum in Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers? Absolutely not. We live in a world of CGI enhancements, and there’s plenty of examples of imperfect effects in all movies – from the most mainstream Marvel movie to the Gemini Man “groundbreaking” character work. If something is rushed or didn’t have the money behind it – it can look off. But nothing in Cats looked like The Rock in The Mummy Returns, and we can stop saying that it looks awful – because it doesn’t.
At the end of the day, it feels like Andrew Lloyd Weber was taking the right kind of drugs to find a human message to his Cats musical, and since 1981, the drugs have worn off. Now, we just replaced them with opioids, and we’re addicted to something new – which is a brand of close-minded narcissism – because honestly, they made a movie about singing and dancing cats, and that’s what you got.
And Tom Hooper did a good job, because at the end of the day, he learned from his mistake of putting Russell Crowe in Les Miserables and didn’t put someone who absolutely couldn’t sing at all in this movie — and that deserves respect.