Disclaimer: The following review of Cats is of the original release of the film. Current Cats screenings contain “enhanced special effects” which are not reflected upon in this review.
In 1982, a man named Andrew Lloyd Webber opened a musical called Cats on Broadway. Based on author T.S. Eliot’s poetry collection entitled Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, the show follows a gaggle of audacious felines as they effectively debate over who deserves reincarnation. It’s gone on to completely revolutionize musical theater as we know it, and became Webber’s most iconic work, which lives on in infamy to this day.
In 2019, a man named Tom Hooper (of Les Misérables “fame”) directed a film adaptation of Mr. Webber’s production, and I’d dare argue that it is the single-most horrifying film this year has to offer—and it doesn’t even have a body count.
Keeping up with the Jellicles
To clarify, Cats, released December 20, is an adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s infamous Broadway production centered around a bunch of cats. More specifically, it’s centered around the Jellicle cats and the induction of Victoria (newcomer Francesca Hayward) on the night of the Jellicle Ball—an opportunity where an extremely old cat named Old Deuteronomy (Dame Judy Dench) will make the Jellicle Choice. The cat chosen in the Jellicle Choice will be taken to the Heaviside Layer, and promptly be reborn into a new life…provided the nefarious Macavity (Idris Elba) doesn’t have his way.
At least, that’s what I presume the story is. In all genuine honesty, Cats is roughly an hour and fifty minutes of characters introducing themselves, having extended musical numbers about themselves, and then either fading into the background or poofing into dust as a result of Macavity’s evil magic. With the exception of a single song written for the film (Taylor Swift’s “Beautiful Ghosts”), all of it is derived from the musical, and I don’t know whether to describe this film’s songs as playfully tone-deaf or beautifully insane. The orchestrations appear to be largely taken straight from the source as well, pattered out on what sounds like the combination of an eighty-piece orchestra and a CASIO keyboard. It’s as if you stretched the holographic gymnastics portion of the Star Wars Holiday Special to feature length—right down to the hellish circumstances that surround the show.
Straight from sleep paralysis
These choices ultimately translate over to the actual filmmaking itself, in every conceivable way. Out of the gate, Cats makes the choice as a live-action feature to shrink its actors down to the size of actual cats through oversized sets, and utilizes a combination of motion capture and “advanced digital fur technology” to paint them into “cats.”
I use “cats” in quotation marks because at best, these are not cats. These are normal, human beings photoshopped in real time to vaguely resemble the idea of a cat. At worst, these are gremlin-like creatures with human faces, feet, and hands, all vaguely tied to naked, furry bodies that feel as if someone spent too much time modeling every crevasse on them. Sometimes, they’re buck naked except a fur coat or cat Nikes. Sometimes, they have full-on outfits. In the case of characters like Bustopher Jones (James Corden, at his most insufferable), his clothes are just “painted” onto the naked fur. Normally, I wouldn’t raise this much umbridge over such a choice (even as egregious as this), but that’s the problem.
This movie is rated PG, and it’s arguably more horrifying than any horror film I’ve ever seen, solely on the value that all of this CGI work and weird, vaguely sexual choreography is meant to be “normal.” Contained within the disturbing pocket universe Cats takes place in, we’re wholly expected to take these moving Photoshop monstrosities as legitimate parts of this universe, and it creates an existentially terrifying reality amongst the abstracted events on display.
I’m just saying, when you hint at the existence of other animals in this universe with cats, rats, and even cockroaches being size-accurate, human-animal monstrosities, it isn’t hard for the mind to wonder: “If this is what the cats look like…then what about people?”
“It’s just cats…”
I legitimately have no further words that can properly describe Tom Hooper’s Cats. In almost all ways, it embodies everything fundamentally wrong with the modern cinematic definition of “adaptation” and weaponizes the CGI we have taken for granted in countless large studio films for evil. Watching this film is akin to the scene from Raiders of the Lost Arc, where the villains stare into the Arc of the Covenant and have their faces melted off by the sheer unknowable power of the artifact in front of them. The only difference is that the Arc here is slathered in electronic fuzz and has an eight-minute tap number about a cat who really likes trains.
In many ways, I almost consider it to be the second coming of The Rocky Horror Picture Show; an audacious, unorthodox piece of cinema that dares to defy every convention in favor of a unique creative vision. It will last for years to come, the Jellicle Ball a future mainstay of raucous midnight movie masses ad infinitum. Theaters will be filled to the gills with audiences who will return to see who gets chosen yet again to go to the Heaviside Layer. It is pure anarchy, and it is the kind of anarchy we need right meow.
Featured Image: IMDb
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