If you saw the first trailer for Cats, you’ve probably been bracing yourself for a cinematic disaster of epic proportions. That preparation will serve you well if you choose to see the finished film, a boondoggle of terrible source material mixed with direction so poor the Academy should repossess Tom Hooper’s Best Director Oscar. Watching Cats makes you feel like you’re slowly going insane. Some may think would be a fun and joyous experience, and perhaps with enough alcohol and a raucous crowd, that would be the case. But if you try to view Cats straight (as I did) it’s a mind-warping experience where nothing works. You’ve got a Tony-winning choreographer in Andy Blankenbeuhler and no idea how to shoot or edit his choreography. You’ve got every single actor fully committing to the bit, and yet they’re somehow rendered even more lifeless and creepy due to the awful VFX. And beneath it all, you’ve got a deeply terrible musical that has persevered for 38 years.
Cats does not have a plot. It doesn’t even have sensible words. You will spend this entire movie wondering what a “jellicle” is (it’s a word from T.S. Eliot’s 1933 poem “Five-Finger Exercises, but for the purposes of the movie, it basically means “these goddamn cats”). The loose idea of Cats is that a new stray, Victoria (Francesca Hayward), comes into the world of the jellicle cats who are about to go to the jellicle ball where Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) will select one cat to ascend the Heaviside Layer to be reborn. However, the devious Macavity (Idris Elba), who has magic powers that no one else does for some reason, plans to eliminate the competition so that he’ll win the contest. But most of the movie is just cats singing about what kind of cats they are and then the film ends.
For a moment, let’s put the musical itself in a box and set it off to the side. We have to accept that a musical that ran on Broadway for decades has some kind of popularity or else it’s just a giant money laundering scheme (I’m not completely willing to rule out the latter possibility). For whatever reason, people have been drawn to Cats, so now it makes sense to adapt it into a movie. However, that movie is such a monument to directorial malpractice that Hooper should get a life sentence in director jail.
When I first saw Hooper’s first stab at a musical, 2012’s adaptation Les Miserables, I was swept up in the music and lost sight of the director’s many missteps in bringing that musical to the screen. I love the music of Les Miserables so much and was so moved by its story that I missed the unnecessary use of close-ups, the over-reliance on talk-singing, the awkward framing, and literally casting someone for a role where the songs aren’t in their register (sorry, Russell Crowe, but you can’t hit those notes). But with Cats, Hooper can’t hide behind good songs or a good story, and all of his weaknesses are instantly laid bare.
For starters, Hooper hired an immensely talented choreographer and then clearly had no idea how to shoot or edit that choreography. It’s clear a lot of work went into the movement, to the point where it feels like you’re attending a class on the subject despite your desire to never attend such a lesson, and then Hooper never gets a proper angle, and even if he stumbles ass-backwards into a good shot, he refuses to hold it for more than three seconds. The film is edited without any rhyme or reason, which is a problem when you’re making a musical and so much depends on timing and rhythm.
This leads to the second problem, which is that Hooper is apparently deaf, or at least his hearing is so poor he couldn’t tell that the sound mix was incomprehensible. You have a movie where characters are singing their explanation of how their world works and who they are, and you literally can’t hear what they’re saying because the instrumentation drowns everything out. This is particularly heinous at the showstopper number, “Memories”, when Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson) hits her high note only to suffer from the blaring noise of the instrumentation. That’s not to mention all the times in the movie where the sound rises and falls so dramatically that you can’t help but wonder if there’s something wrong with your auditorium’s speaker system.
Then there’s the Digital Fur Technology™, and if I were in charge of a studio, I would do everything in my power to make sure Hooper never gets close to a film that requires visual effects. There are some shots where the technology “works” in that “works” means, “Yes, this is a believable version of a human-cat hybrid that will still haunt my dreams.” But overall, the VFX still look atrocious like a human face superimposed onto lithe cat bodies. That’s not to mention the terrible compositing work so that no one looks like they’re actually in the space they’re inhabiting or sharing space with other characters. There’s a scene involving a chorus line of cockroaches where the VFX look worse than the special effects from movies made in the 1930s.
Hooper and co-writer Lee Hall also decided to add the Macavity subplot to the movie, and it makes absolutely no sense. The more you try to put a plot into Cats, the more it rejects that plot so you have Macavity with magic powers, but why he’s the only cat with powers is never explored. Also, the reason he wants to go to the Heaviside Layer is never explained beyond, “It’s a competition, he’s a bad guy, and so he’ll do whatever it takes to win,” which means teleporting other cats to a docked tugboat where they’ll be guarded by Growltiger (Ray Winstone going full Ray Winstone so that whenever he talks in his London tuff accent you can’t help but laugh). This plot doesn’t really add anything, and it’s such a half-hearted stab at providing anything cohesive you wonder why they even bothered at all.
The film that everyone is in is largely the musical of cats singing about what kind of cat they are and this repeats until you pray for the sweet release of death. Tom Hooper’s direction to his actors for this semblance of a plot was to act it super horny. That doesn’t give Cats a raw sexual energy as much as it makes everything incredibly uncomfortable like when Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo) is dumping milk into cats’ faces or Macavity just seems more nude than other cats even though technically all the cats are nude. But if it wasn’t enough to make the cats horny (why are they so horny), Hooper also feels the need to make it gross by having them dig through trash and play up their animal instincts. Cats always feels like it’s two seconds away from turning into a furry orgy in a dumpster. That’s the energy you have to sit with for almost two hours.
All of these shortcomings are compounded by Cats being a terrible musical. It has no musical themes, the plot is nonexistent, and most of the characters are jerks who like singing about what giant jerks they are. To make Catsinto a movie requires far more finesse and craft than Tom Hooper could manage on his best day, and he did not have a best day while making Cats. You can never get swept up in Cats because it’s so abrasively weird and anti-narrative that you needed some kind of fearless auteur like a Jonathan Glazer (Under the Skin) who would lean into those sensibilities rather than flail desperately at making it palatable for audiences.
The best thing I can say about Cats is that all of the actors are committed, and perhaps Hooper’s gift is getting people to buy into his vision. No one is half-assing it or betraying any thought that this movie could seriously damage their careers. And hell, maybe working on this project took them back to their theater kid days where you could throw yourself into movement and didn’t know a good musical from a bad one. I would say that’s where the magic of Cats lies, but then the film gets super horny again and launches into another awful song.