Cats (!!!…?)

Let me just say, that having seen it last night, that Cats is not a ‘good’ movie. The humor doesn’t work. The costumes are bizarre and often unsettling, sometimes horribly drawn on, especially for poor Jennifer Hudson.

It wasn’t even a good musical — the music is jarringly bad and remarkable in its un-catchy-ness and inability to get caught in your head. I woke up thinking that I had ‘Memory’ in my head but it was actually something from Phantom of the Opera.

Also! The entire movie is fucking insane! It’s fucking nuts! It’s comically fucking insane!

What the fuck is a jellical cat? What is the plot of this (spoiler alert: something about cat heaven)?

Why, for the love of God, are the cockroaches so humanoid? Why is the sense of scale so creepy?

How is it possible for something so asexual to be so sexually weird?

I’ve been fascinated by the idea of Cats since I my parents took me to see it as a teenager on Broadway. It just seemed like this entirely inexplicable phenomenon.

Love, hate, or indifferent, it doesn’t take much to come up with plausible reasons why people would love Hamilton, or Phantom of the Opera, or Rent, or Evita, or [insert any musical that isn’t Cats here].

But Cats just felt so bizarre to me. In a way, many musicals feel like parodies of the musical genre to me — no matter how engrossing, I always fall out at some point in the middle and wonder “wait. this is ridiculous right? we all know this is ridiculous?”1

That feeling was 10x with Cats because it’s grown adults dressed and made up as cats in tights singing about being cats AND YET SOMEHOW CATS WAS AT ONE TIME THE LONGEST-RUNNING MUSICAL OF ALL TIME AND GROSSED OVER 1.3 BILLION DOLLARS I DON’T KNOW IF THAT’S INFLATION-ADJUSTED OR NOT BUT STILL.

II.

I’m reading All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire, an oral history of one of the great shows of all time, back when the golden age was really golden and men were… metrosexual… or something.

One thing that surprised me was that the original script for episode 3.11, has Omar and Brother Mouzone shooting Stringer Bell and then pissing on his dead body, which apparently was the rigor in Baltimore gang wars at the time.

The actor, Idris Elba, was so incensed by the desecration of his character’s dead body that he threatened to walk off the show and eventually the writers changed the script. I admire Elba, who wasn’t yet the star that he is today, for having the chutzpah to make a stand and risking his reputation as an actor that’s easy to work with.

All of this leads me to the question: what the fuck was Idris Elba thinking joining the cast of Cats?

What were any of these people thinking?

I know that probably comes off as snark. I swear, I’m not being snarky.

I’m honestly and earnestly curious about how and why this movie was made. And I have a theory about how the cast came aboard:

“I auditioned [Taylor Swift] for ‘Les Mis’ and she was brilliant,” Hooper recalled. “And actually, I reached out to Taylor first among all the actors…I wrote to her and said, ‘Would you consider being part of the cast?’ And she said yes straight away. So, she was actually the building block that created the cast of the whole film.”

‘Cats’ Director Tom Hooper Didn’t Finish Movie Until Hours Before World Premiere

My theory is that Hooper got Swift on board because of his reputation for his previous work (Les Mis, The King’s Speech) and then used that to get other actors to come on board and next thing you know, you have Judi Dench and Taylor Swift and Idris Elba and of course they all want to work together, they’re all great and famous and this sounds like a lot of fun.

I don’t think any of them had any idea how the thing would look in the end, and maybe nobody did, not even Hooper, until there it was and you’ve already spent a ton of money and you might as well release it and see what happens.

I don’t know if that’s what happened, but it seems plausible, and maybe that’s just a risk of relying so heavily on CGI — you don’t really know how it’s going to look until you do it. Maybe they didn’t really test it, first. I don’t know.

III.

So, how to feel about all of this?

On one hand, I think that this movie is the result following a blind faith in IP to its logical conclusion. It’s not original to point out how severely depressing it is, the extent to which anything with a big budget these days goes to something that is a remake, a sequel, an adaptation, or anything with existing “IP.”2.

I mean for as bad as this movie has been panned and how much of a ‘failure’ it is, it’s still made $40 million at the box office.3 That’s not a lot by Hollywood success standards, but it’s still a lot of money, more money than Uncut Gems, Midsommar, and many other good and well-known movies.

If it had been made for less, somehow, maybe by using costumes instead of CGI, we might even be talking about it as a surprise success.

IV.

But.

I had a great time seeing Cats in a theater last night. It wasn’t a good movie but it was an entertaining theater experience. I mean that sincerely.

I went with friends and the nearly-full theater in Chicago came for the fun. We shouted at the screen, we meow’d in derision, and we laughed. A lot. It was really funny. I know, not in the way it was intended (none of the intended jokes landed).

But it was a genuinely good time in a movie theater, and that’s more than I can say for more than a few movies I’ve seen in the past year, notably the Rise of Skywalker, which was a dull slog and all the more painful because I loved Star Wars as a kid and well, Cats the musical was well, you know.

And there was something genuinely exciting to me about the existence of this thing on a meta level, about the inexplicableness of it — you might say it’s… ineffable.

If some people get together and make something inexplicable, bizarre, strange, liable to rewire your sexuality if you see it in the wrong headspace, or just plain fucking nuts, I mean I think we should at least celebrate the effort.

We should have movies that are weird and bold and insane and inexplicable, even if it means having some spectacular failures.

And if we’re going to lament the Marvel- and Disney-ification of movies today, then we ought to be more charitable to what breaks the mold, even if it is a disaster.

I think we people who care about movies, who want to see great movies, that we should encourage the creation of more insane and weird movies, if for no other reason than that occasionally one of them will be amazing or blow us away.

All of this is to say – I don’t know. Maybe it’s the alcohol or maybe it’s the haunting image of Rebel-Wilson-as-CGI-cat eating a living humanoid cockroach that’s making it hard to process what I think about this movie, but I’m really happy that it exists.


  1. A feeling that I couldn’t express in words until I saw Porcupine Racetrack

  2. The use of IP has always bugged me a bit, since all writing is IP, at least all writing done now, while remaking Sense and Sensibility doesn’t involve intellectual property in a legal sense, it’s in the public domain. 

  3. As of January 5, 2020.