The Cats Horror

No, it’s not “so bad it’s good” — Cats is a beloved Broadway musical turned into a $100 million Hollywood freak show.

Tom Hooper's 2019 film Cats. (Universal Pictures)

By now everybody knows what a gruesome flop Cats is. The disastrous hundred-million-dollar adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage musical has already been shoved into the last, most obscure theater in the cineplex, the one so far down the long hallway from the lobby it’s practically in the parking lot. The film’s failure is no surprise — months ago, people watching the trailer were already reeling back in horror, screaming, “My eyes, my eyes!”

Critics have outdone themselves coming up with colorfully insulting ways to convey the sickening effects of seeing actors arching and flexing and nuzzling in bizarre feline-human bodies, with some famous faces belonging to Idris Elba, Judi Dench, Rebel Wilson, Ian McKellen, Jennifer Hudson, and Taylor Swift badly CGI’d onto them. Matt Goldberg may have come up with the most quotable line panning the film: “Cats always seems like it’s two seconds away from turning into a furry orgy in a dumpster.”

Online abuse of the film is rife. I particularly enjoyed the post comparing Cats’ terrible CGI to those hilarious Medieval paintings of cats, especially that one with the woebegone, too-human face floating awkwardly in the center of the crudely rendered cat head.

But the problem with so much inventiveness on the part of those gleefully panning the film is it starts to make it sound almost good in its awfulness. They persuade others to rush off and see it — some opting to take psychedelics beforehand to augment the hallucinatory ghastliness of the film — in order to report back to their friends about how mind-destroying it was. I had my hopes pinned on that kind of grisly enjoyment. But unfortunately, nobody warned me that all the garish lighting, pointless camera movement, and bland furry erotica can’t keep the boredom at bay. It’s so excruciating, I fell asleep twice.

Director Tom Hooper already proved he can’t direct musicals with his bizarre 2012 version of Les Misérables, but then, neither can anyone else in Hollywood. Of course, it goes without saying that we’re a long way from the exhilarating days of Meet Me in St. Louis and Singin’ in the Rain and Cabaret. By current standards, even South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999) and Sweeney Todd (2012) are starting to look like works of genius. Hooper may have the dubious honor of putting the final nail in the coffin of Hollywood musicals with Cats.

It’s packed with songs, each one going on at cruel length, but the worst is the fifty-seven choruses of this one twee ditty that goes:

Oh well I never, was there ever
a cat so clever
as Magical Mister Mistoffelees…

I swear I’ll hear that chorus on my deathbed, and die cursing the culture that produced Cats, whether on stage or on screen, and prolonged the reach of the mortifying source material, T. S. Eliot’s 1939 collection of “whimsical poetry,” Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.

That song is part of a big climactic set piece, a sort of American Idol­­–style contest for cats in order to decide which one gets to ride off to cat heaven in a balloon, or some such unendurable plot. The goofy Mister Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson) is supposed to be using his magic powers to save Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) from the murderous wiles of cheating contestant Macavity (Idris Elba), and all the other cats sing the song to encourage him. Old Deuteronomy is being made to walk the plank on a tugboat prison while Mister Mistoffelees tries to get his magic working. It finally does work, but Hooper forgets to keep cutting back to Old Deuteronomy’s peril in walking the plank, so you lose the sense that there’s any big urgency about trying to get the magic to work — other than that if it does, the song will finally end.

Hard to believe any filmmakers these days don’t know how to build suspense through elementary crosscutting, which got perfected back in the 1910s when D. W. Griffith was Hollywood’s hottest director, but that’s the kind of incompetence that’s making Cats infamous.

Stung by the raucous fun critics are having with his film, Hooper came up with a beaut of a defense. He claimed Cats is actually a political film about “the perils of tribalism.” The Jellicle cats — don’t ask — exclude outsiders, see, until the kittenish newcomer Victoria (Francesca Hayward) persuades them to take back the disgraced Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson), the one who sings “Memory,” that lugubrious solo that helped blight pop culture for decades. Hooper said in a recent interview:

. . . I think the film at a thematic level is perhaps suggesting that we as a community are stronger when, rather than dividing, we reintegrate into our community the fallen, the forgotten, the disgraced . . . . My phrase, the perils of tribalism, is a reflection on today’s political scene, where both in the UK and the US the tribalism of cultural discourse and politics is making it harder and harder for acts of kindness across the divide.

So not only has Tom Hooper 1) made a supremely rotten film, he’s now 2) trying to elevate his supremely rotten film by claiming it’s political, and, worst of all, he’s 3) coming up with the gooey centrist “politics” that urge individual acts of kindness as a solution to systemic horror on a vast international scale. He deserves all the scorn heaped upon him, and more. Keep those online insults coming!