Cats is a baffling, humourless CGI nightmare—and the people deserve an explanation

If society is to move forward from this illogical disaster, we need nothing less than a full and frank inquiry

December 19, 2019
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History books of the future will tell of the twin disasters in December 2019. The first, the Labour Party’s results in a pivotal general election. The second, Cats.

In each case, the early portents (opinion polls; a trailer) loomed large, seeming to augur an impending fiasco. Yet throughout, hopeful campaigners and cinephiles clung desperately to the increasingly threadbare delusion that... maybe... it wouldn’t be... so bad? And then—on 12th December at 10pm, and again on 17th December at 6:30pm—the sheer scale of the catastrophe descended upon us with a crash. This was not just any old failure, but a cataclysmic one, which could set back democracy in Britain/the art-form of cinema for a generation.

In Cats the exit poll moment comes in the very first scene, where we drop alarmingly from the sky, down to a sort of papier-mâché Soho, where humans dressed, painted and CGI’d so as to convey the outward appearance of cats, cavort and sing a song about being jellicles. The song lasts for about five or six minutes, crescendoing to a harrowing level of insanity, while never doing any of the following things: setting the scene; introducing a character; being pleasant to look at or listen to. The central dilemmas of the film already throb like a wound: 1) what does any of this mean?, and 2) the people, actors, who have been styled and instructed to play the part of cats, are, it is clear at all times, actually humans.

The story of the film is only very barely explained, after four or five loud and quite staggering songs by would-be comical (Rebel Wilson) or sexy (Jason Derulo) cats. The idea is that the cats are all jellicles, whatever that means, and one of them gets to go to heaven. They are each introduced in turn, and each sings a song explaining who they are—a curious cat, for instance; or a magical cat; or a (let me check my notes) “railway cat.” One of the cats is a sex worker.

Throughout these early scenes, as the realisation dawns that the whole film is going to be like this, a kind of hysteria is released, and a sort of slack-jawed, punch-drunk stupor envelops you. You watch the film through clenched fingers, or start in your seat, or find yourself shaking your head in private wonder. At times I snuck a glimpse down my row of seats, which presented a gallery of faces frozen in shock and horror.

What does it mean to be jellicle? The closest we get to an answer comes when Cat Judi Dench snaps, “You will never be my jellicle choice” at Cat Idris Elba, as he forces her to walk the plank on a barge on the Thames. But the problem with singling out absurdities or inconsistencies in Cats is that it only brings other problems to the fore. Yes, “jellicle” means nothing—but then, why do some of the cats wear shoes? Why are they sometimes as big as a human and sometimes as big as a shopping bag? Why do some walk and some crawl? Why do they have necks but no anuses?

At no point, while watching Cats, do you become used to it. In every scene, every shot, the shock and bafflement of watching humans singing songs while being cats is born anew. The rank impossibility of suspending one’s disbelief is partly the fault of shonky make-up and CGI jobs; you may find yourself noticing the way the face-paint terminates in almost a straight line on every cat’s nose, just above their nostrils; or you might become hypnotised by the blank void of those cats whose faces have been digitised into a sort of tacky Pre-Raphaelite look of dopey wonder.

But most of it is due to the script’s inability to cope with the sheer folly of what’s happening. Should the film treat this stuff as a bit of a silly joke (as Cat James Corden does on occasion), or go all-in? It chooses to do the latter—which means that watching the film feels like being parachuted into a cult. Employing somebody with a sense of humour—to direct, or choreograph, or act, or punch up the script—might have been a good creative decision.

There simply isn’t time to get into all of the film’s wtf-ery: there are singing CGI cockroaches giving it the full Busby Berkeley; there’s a heaving-chested Cat Taylor Swift drugging a whole room of cats; there’s a scene where Cat Ian McKellen actually says “miaow miaow miaow”; there’s Ray Winstone. These things are just scratching the surface. And lest I’ve given the impression that Cats is a pure romp, I should add that on more than one occasion it also— somehow—finds the time to be boring.

The visual aspect ranges from the acceptable to the grotesque: the almost impossibly garish set decoration and the frenetic shot selection are two of the most grating elements. Tom Hooper assays a bit of verve in some scenes—there’s an attempt at an old-school Hollywood dance number on a staircase, for instance—but these are often lacking in grace. The let’s-put-on-a-show ethos, and the way the film embraces vulgarity, could have been endearing and fun, but in reality, just leave Cat Jason Derulo’s big number looking like an extended Lenny Kravitz video. 

Mere words can never hope to convey everything that Cat Judi Dench makes the viewer feel, in her long ginger coat, with her fluffy ginger mane, twinkling an eye at the audience or stretching a leg while reclining in a cosy basket. In other words, Cats is that rare film that really does have to be seen to be believed. This is not encouragement to see it—I will not be held responsible—but at a time like this, when so many people are feeling so badly wronged and hurt, we desperately need answers. Only by delivering an honest and thorough post-mortem on what went wrong can we hope to move forward as a society.

Now read Caspar Salmon on the joy of "self-partnering"