Like my cousin Emily if she’s forgotten to take antihistamines before visiting my house, film critics worldwide do not appreciate Cats (2019). Right before this year comes to a close, the movie has attracted some of the most gleefully-written zero-star reviews of the decade, some of my favourites describing the film as “a horny void of confusion”, or, in a stroke of genius, merely stating, “congratulations, dogs”.
Watching bad movies is kind of how I learnt to love film at all. So the first trailer for Tom Hooper’s Cats made my dick very hard — and not just in a furry way. This movie looked to be the next Big Flop, something Hollywood hadn’t properly experienced since the millennium scourge of Battlefield Earth (2000) and Batman and Robin (1997).
I couldn’t wait to see a cast of respected, Oscar-winning actors and emerging Broadway professionals alike humiliate themselves while dressed in the ghoulish computer-generated skin of my favourite animal. Which is why Cats was a disappointment to me — the movie is pretty decent.
Don’t get me wrong — this film is not good by any means. Hooper’s direction is as soggy and literal as ever. The ‘revolutionary digital fur technology’ is agonising to behold — during the final moments of the film, I kept getting startled by the movement of some character’s ears atop their ill-defined cat heads. You never get used to how these Dr Moreau-ass beings look. But! There’s also a lot of talented people and beautiful melodies in this thing. And I don’t want the critical and commercial failure of this film to mean that studios are scared to take a chance on big, dumb, splashy musicals anymore.
So here are my suggestions on how to make Cats into a better film. Meow.
Rebel Wilson and James Corden: shut up.
Sorry guys. I know Tom Hooper thought that if he let you add in some self-aware quips in between musical numbers, it would bring some levity to a film which otherwise is deadly serious about its story of death-obsessed cats that fuck. But your tiresome ‘welp that happened’ Marvel-style jokes are far too distinctly 2019 to have any place in a narrative which was so clearly birthed in an era devoted to cocaine and leotards, not today’s world of uhhhhhh ketamine and activewear???
These ‘comedic’ asides are so clearly tacked on in a reshoot. Wilson at one point asks our protagonist Victoria (Francesca Hayward), “What’s wrong? Cat got your tongue?”…after another cat made that same joke five minutes before.
You need to stop talking. Just sing your songs and make funny faces. The film credits a ‘physical comedy consultant’, so there’s a whole professional human being to help you make funny cat-falling-over gags. Rely on their skill; otherwise, shut the fuck up.
(Also to anyone who sees the discrimination of these particular actors as fatshaming, please know that Corden begins his number by singing of himself that ‘Bustopher Jones is not skin and bones/in fact he’s remarkably fat’.)
Either all of the cats have clothes, or none of them have clothes
Some of these cats have shoes — Taylor Swift Cat rocks a tasteful pair of pumps, and some hip-hop cats wear tiny cat-sized sneakers. It’s one of a million tiny details that constantly bring the audience’s attention to the fact that these cats are never to scale. As much as their size randomly changes throughout the film, none of the cast seem to ever be the size of real cats — mostly, they look like those Snapchat filters that superimpose a dancing hotdog or elf into your living room.
Idris Elba wears a trendy leather coat and fedora for most of the film, confirming that his evil character Macavity is the mall ninja/incel of the Cats universe. It’s a great look. But when Elba dances to his particular song, the clothes are gone, and we’re forced to ogle his broad, fur-covered torso, including the Mattel-esque omission of any genitals or a butt crack.
It’s so upsetting! Why do some cats get neat accessories to cover their shame, and others are forced to do the splits buck naked? Please, agree to either democratise the supply of cat-sized clothes or show us Ian McKellen’s featureless cat groin. You cowards.
Update the score
At the start of this film, my heart was beating very very fast because the highly 1980s-sounding overture of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score terrified me. The composition of this musical itself is not bad — T.S. Eliot’s bonkers poems lend itself to songs that are cat-chy and sometimes pretty moving. Here, the orchestration is the problem.
I’m talking awful farty synths, and stupid forays into disco and hip-hop beats. I love Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Jesus Christ Superstar, which also blends then-contemporary pop styles with orchestral and choral themes, but the sound of Cats is often kinda painful, letting down the cast’s uniformly good vocals (yeah, even actors like Rebel Wilson and McKellen and Dench sing fine). Let’s stick to real instruments and lose the midi.
Also do y’all remember when Andrew Lloyd Webber said he discovered Rihanna in Barbados but he didn’t “bring her back” to England with him because it would be like buying a tacky souvenir while you’re overseas and then regretting it later? whuh
No live singing
As with his previous crack at adapting an 80s Broadway juggernaut for the screen, 2012’s Les Misérables, Hooper here attempts to add a sense of gritty realism to his cast’s musical performances by recording their vocals live.
The problem is that these songs and this story should never be tied to our real, safe, human world in any way. Do I need to feel that a character named Rum Tum Tugger is speaking from the depths of his soul when he sings, “I like to lie in the bureau drawer/But I make such a fuss if I can’t get out”? Fuck no! It’s a little hypersexual cat singing about how he doesn’t want to be trapped in a cupboard!
Hooper adds nothing to his gifted cast’s vocals by amplifying all their annoying breathing noises when they’re rushing from the rubbish bin set to the rooftop set. In some songs, it’s even hard to hear the performers, such as when they’re momentarily out of breath after doing a flip, or when their body mics are muffled when they erotically press up against another cat.
In Les Misérables, Hooper was clearly going for a disarming authenticity — he wanted audiences to jab their partner in the side and say, ‘you know that’s really Russell Crowe singing, right?’, to which their partner would say, ‘yes, unfortunately’. In this film’s case, I don’t want to know that these catbeasts are being played by real people. That’s not a comforting thought.
On the other hand…
This is the big one.
The musical is very stupid — its vague structure involves a tribe of cats, the Jellicles, as they introduce themselves by singing a very horny song about their single personality trait, all in a bid to be given the chance to die if Judi Dench’s Cat Pope decides that they are worthy of ‘the Jellicle choice’.
Tom Hooper, a director I do not particularly admire, was already off to a shaky start with that lunatic premise. Then he decided to make things worse by trying to bring Webber and Eliot’s vision to life in unimaginatively realistic terms. In a doomed behind-the-scenes promo from earlier this year, much of the cast and crew have clearly been told to generate buzz for the movie’s wall-to-wall special effects.
The solution? Strip back all the Zemeckis bullshit and simply show us the rehearsal process for Cats, rather than the ugly, hyperreal result. I want a sparse, theatrical staging of this show. Basically, this same cast and score but done in the style of Lars Von Trier’s Dogville (2003) (cats vs dogs…I promise I didn’t plan that before writing this article).
What if this movie had just been a feature-length concert documentary of sorts, with Dench, Derulo, Swift and Hudson in theatre blacks, making the camera believe that they’re a sect of musically talented cats without costumes or elaborate sets or any heinous, incomplete CGI? During this film, I kept wondering what the rehearsal process for the film looked like. And I think the filming of those rehearsals would in themselves make a better movie than any more ‘realistic’ interpretation Hooper could give us.
I feel that a tired adherence to realism is one of the biggest problems facing popular film today – for fear that audiences will criticise a film for its plot-holes or ‘weirdness’, Hollywood has turned to employing doggedly self-aware, sarcastic humour in every film, or just rebooting old wacky properties that couldn’t be made sincerely today (Men In Black, Ghostbusters, Big Trouble in Little China). It’s why ‘they don’t make musicals like they used to’.
I don’t want Cats to encourage a push in the direction of tired realism. And I think my solution would give musical fans a chance to hear Webber’s nutty score performed by a talented cast, while reminding musical skeptics of the dazzling effort and commitment that goes into musical theatre.
Even if you hate Cats as a musical – as every God-fearing person probably should – this stripped-back adaptation would take advantage of the weak source material. Without those cumbersome, achingly literal sets and CGI cat bodies, we would be able to see the actor’s every hiss and pelvic thrust for what it really is; bravery. I would kill to see a version of Cats where, Cage-like, the performer’s bold approach to terrible material transcends mere questions of ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and becomes only ‘art’.
This is my Snyder cut. Please Mr. Hooper – release footage of the cast of Cats rehearsing the musical numbers, and collate it into one long feature film. You can skip Taylor Swift’s new Oscar-bait song, and nobody will be mad. I can even see some of the rehearsal footage in the aforementioned promo video! PLEASE!
Maybe my brain is just dripping out through my ears because I’ve heard the word ‘Jellicle’ about 400 times in the past few hours. But I truly believe the above changes would improve Cats. Thank you for coming to my TED talk.
Cats is now showing in Australian cinemas.
Eliza Janssen is a Melbourne writer of criticism and screenplays who wants you to know that there are pterodactyls in the background of the breakfast table montage in Citizen Kane. For more information visit elizajanssen.com / @eliza_janssen