Review: Cats

I have seen terror. I have seen fright. I have seen fear. I have seen horror, curdling the mind to insanity. I have seen unreal shapes twisting in the darkness, misshapen and ghastly, devouring the innocent souls that are unlucky enough to cross their paths. I have seen them worship death, sending lost souls into the night, into the shadows. I have seen madness.

I have seen… “Cats.”

Okay, the movie “Cats” is not nearly as bad as my Lovecraftian hyperbole would make you think. But there’s no denying that this movie is a mess of nearly cosmic proportions – nearly everything that it does is done wrong, with a blissful lack of awareness as to how it is horrifying its audience with a feverish sea of sexualized CGI fur, confusing dialogue and the occasional blood sacrifice. The only enjoyment to be found here is purely ironic.

A young cat named Victoria (Francesca Hayward) is abandoned in an alleyway, and is quickly found by the Jellicle Cats. What are Jellicle Cats? I have no idea. The movie never really explains it, except that they apparently have a Jellicle Ball where the Jellicle Choice is made – specifically, one of them is chosen to die and be reborn. Yes, it does sound like a cult.

What we do know is that there are a lot of them, and they helpfully introduce themselves with a song every time Victoria encounters a new one – the rambunctious contrarian Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo), the cockroach-consuming domestic tyrant Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson), the ever-hungry Bustopher Jones (James Corden), the mischievous Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer (Danny Collins and Naoimh Morgan), the possibly-senile Gus (Ian McKellen), and so on.

There’s also Macavity (Idris Elba), a malevolent sorcerer cat who is determined to be the Jellicle Choice by taking out (non-fatally) any of the other suicidal cats, even though the Jellicle matriarch Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) has vowed she will not choose him. Also, there’s the outcast cat Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson), who is shunned by the Jellicles and just sort of hangs around being sad.

It’s honestly difficult to summarize “Cats,” because it doesn’t have much of a plot – at least three-quarters of it is just cats introducing themselves (or each other) with songs based on T.S. Eliot poems. As soon as one cat finishes introducing him/herself to Victoria, another one bounces in to sing all about him/herself. At some point you just want SOMETHING, ANYTHING to happen other than cats introducing themselves, but by that time, the movie is practically over.

And it manages to be both boring and horrifying. There are some artistic choices here worthy of a fever dream, such as Jennyanydots peeling off her skin (thankfully, she has another one underneath it) and devouring little humanoid cockroaches. Or Rum Tum Tugger flipping open his coat like a flasher (why are any of these cats wearing clothes?). Or Gus spewing literally incoherent gibberish. Or everybody tripping on catnip. Or the final salute to Bovril. Somehow, the movie has all this bizarre, uncomfortable stuff happening in it, yet it also bores you to sleep. How is that possible?

And of course, there’s the special effects. Someone apparently decided to imitate the style of the stage play, in which humans dance around wearing cat costumes – or in this case, CGI fur. But with stage productions, there’s a suspension of disbelief in which the audience accepts that what they are seeing is not to be taken literally because live productions cannot give us literal cats singing and dancing. Movies, on the other hand, CAN give us these things, and thus we go into them with the mindset that what we see is literally what we are expected to see.

As a result, “Cats” seems less like a musical about a bunch of felines living in their own little subculture, and more like a post-apocalyptic world devoid of humans, where cats have mutated into humanoid creatures with PEOPLE faces, hands, feet and sometimes breasts. It’s very unnerving, and the uncanny valley effect isn’t helped by the face that sometimes people’s faces tend to float in front of their heads, too large or too small for the rest of them.

The acting doesn’t really help either – a few actors are mediocre (Judi Dench), and the rest range from bad to bizarre. Rebel Wilson and James Corden are both intensely annoying, and apparently are included just so we can laugh at how fat they are. Ian McKellen seems drunk. Idris Elba is grandstanding in a comical way (he yells “ME-OW!” every time he teleports). And Hayward – who is an excellent dancer – just sort of floats from one scenario to the next with a vaguely amazed smile, or a vaguely sad expression.

“Cats” is one of those bad movies that actually deserves study, so you can understand the thousands of little ways that it utterly fails to be anything it sets out to be. Consider this feline neutered.

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