When the first Cats trailer was released back in July, its nightmarish array of human-cat hybrids sent the internet into a mini meltdown. In retrospect, I’m thankful that trailer gave me time to prepare for some of the musical’s more eerie aspects, like the cats’ disturbingly human fingers, or the abject sight of a feline James Corden. There were some things, however, it failed to prepare me for – the terrifying humanoid mice, for example, or the aggressive sexual energy to most of the songs, or the appearance of a pirate cat played by Ray Winstone. Or, for that matter, just how bad it would be.
The ‘plot’ involves a series of scenes where cats tell us their cat name and then sing a song about what kind of cat they are. Each cat is competing to be made “the jellicle choice” and thus ascend to “the Heaviside Layer”, which isn’t necessarily heaven but sure sounds a lot like heaven. That’s it. It’s literally just one cat introduction after the other until the film ends, the bizarre twist being that they are all apparently auditioning for death.
The cats have names like Rum Tum Tugger and Jennyanydots and Mr. Mistoffelees and spend their time prancing around a neon-lit version of Soho that humans seem to have (understandably) abandoned. Some cats have jobs, like Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat, who drives a train. Some cats, like the villainous Macavity, can do magic. All of the cats sing, even though many of the actors playing them most definitely can’t.
There are some genuinely fun bits, like when Taylor Swift briefly shows up, sprinkles everyone with catnip – which in this universe results in everyone becoming *even more* horny – and showcases the film’s only impressive vocals, or when Ian McKellen momentarily threatens to give a performance that could actually be considered ‘good’. But these glimpses of class are violently brushed aside by song after song of terribly written expositional nonsense with no dramatic weight. Even “Memory” – the musical’s only decent song – is an unpleasant experience, as sung by an uncontrollably sobbing Jennifer Hudson with a huge rope of snot hanging from her nose.
The cats never stop looking terrifying. It’s in part due to the uncanny use of “digital fur technology”, the glorified Snapchat filter that makes the whole film feel like a covert adaptation of The Island of Doctor Moreau. But there’s also the fact that the cats are constantly shifting in scale, or that if you look at their furless feet – something I would highly discourage doing – you can see that they rarely give the appearance of making contact with the ground. That’s without even mentioning the alarming questions raised by the character designs: like why Judy Dench’s cat is wearing a fur coat, or why Rebel Wilson’s cat can unzip herself (a catsuit?), or why Idris Elba’s cat looks so exceptionally naked.
Did Cats ever stand a chance? Maybe if it had been directed by Baz Luhrmann, who I would have trusted to ramp-up the camp to full volume. Instead, director Tom Hooper insists on a mindboggling earnestness. Are we really expected to be terribly concerned when Mr. Mistoffelees – a character we learn sod all about – is unable to use his magical powers? And are we really supposed to learn something when, at the end, a weirdly stern Judi Dench gives us such invaluable lessons as “a cat is not a dog”? Why do I feel like I’m being told off?
And yet, for all its shocking lack of self-awareness and general groan-inducing awfulness, I’m not sure how anyone could entirely hate this film. Hollywood coughs up plenty of bad films, but it’s incredibly rare to get something this deliriously, delightfully dreadful on a $100 million budget. For anyone in need of some festive cheer – that is, anyone who can look beyond the film’s crimes against music and the Cronenbergian body horror that is the cats themselves – I’d heartily recommend an outing to Cats.
Cats is, for better or worse, out now.