When I first saw the teaser trailer for “Cats,” the movie, I thought it was a “Saturday Night Live” sketch that I had missed. Surely Sir Ian McKellen, Idris Elba, and Dame Judi Dench wouldn’t agree to appear in this certainly doomed Broadway adaptation—they couldn’t possibly be that hard up for cash.
Watching the storied actors prance through the preview in twitching whiskers while singing in the streets of the fakest London backdrop I’d ever seen, I imagined a room of young comedy writers coming up with the funniest way a respected performer could debase himself for a paycheck. But I was soon corrected and assured that “Cats” was a real thing and heading to a cinema near me just in time for Christmas.
Of course, I dismissed out of hand the idea of actually sitting through it. The ridiculousness of the cast aside, modern musicals adapted into film is a tricky business, and “Cats” never appealed to me even as a Broadway production.
Just after we turned the calendar to 2020, however, my sweet little cousin chose “Cats” as the film she would most like to see on her 15th birthday. At first, I balked. I agreed to have lunch with the family to celebrate her birthday and would then part ways before showtime at the AMC Starplex. But something in me softened as we gleefully ate our burgers. Maybe it was the youthful joy on her face and the lack of bitter pessimism I’ve come to embrace so readily. So on that day, I saw “Cats.”
I wish this was the tale of redemption I’ve set it up to be. I wish I could continue this article with a glowing review of a movie embraced by both young and old, a triumph of modern cinema with a star-studded cast. This was simply not the case. It was bad. It was really, very bad. It was so bad, in fact, that the only reasoning I can come up with for its badness is that it was a plot by dogs to make cats as unappealing and off-putting as cosmically possible.
Here are the top four most cringe-inducing elements of “Cats.” (Spoilers, I guess.)
1. Dame Judi Dench
Playing “Old Deuteronomy,” or “Old Doot” to the familiar, the 85-year-old Oscar-winning actress who has been honored by the British crown several times for her contributions to the arts barely seemed conscious in a fluffy orange kitty costume as the supposed matron of all cats. Old Doot arrives only occasionally to the street cats of London to bestow the honor of the “Jellicle Choice” on one cat who can prove his worth (more on this later.)
Dench is a fine actress and has been for many decades. She is not a singer. In fact, Dench has expressed a great hesitation at performing in musicals as far back as 1968. According to “The Great Stage Stars” by Sheridan Morely, Dench was flabbergasted when she was asked to audition for “Cabaret.”
“At first she thought they were joking,” Morely wrote. “She had never done a musical and she has an unusual, croaky voice which sounds as if she has a permanent cold.” Dench was on to something. Now, more than 50 years later, at 85, she was given many of the most important solos and performances in the movie, including the closing number. It wasn’t great.
2. Whiskers, Ears, Tails, and CGI, Oh My…
On Broadway, performers in “Cats” dutifully don costumes of fabric ears and tails, playfully nudging each other and making cat-like gestures as they sing show tunes mixed with high-energy ballet and jazz. Apparently, this just wasn’t realistic enough for the big screen, so the make-up went into full high-definition mode, adding jarringly realistic fur patches to the very human faces, hands, and feet of the actors. Costumes and makeup not being enough for these adventurous filmmakers, special effects and animation were added to make their ears, tails, fur, and whiskers twitch and turn in a very “realistic” way.
Meanwhile, the very real-looking animated ears and tails were still being worn by human actors who had hands, human faces, and human feet. At least on Broadway, the obviously fabric and ornate costumes are meant as a gesture of behaving like a cat. In the movie, it seems they should have just animated the whole thing and made them look like real cats. The attempt at “the best of both worlds” was just short of disturbing and reminded me more of a fetish convention possibly attended by Beto O’Rourke.
3. Rebel Wilson’s Opening Scene
Wilson plays a chubby orange tabby living it up in a mice- and cockroach-infested apartment. I think we learned from three installments of “Pitch Perfect” that she’s not a fantastic singer and I’m here to tell you that putting her in a half-animated chubby cat get-up didn’t help at all. Wilson, whose character’s name is Jennyanydots (yes, really), invites several stray cats into her abode and does some extremely provocative stretching and gesturing made only okay by the fact that…never mind, it was not okay.
Later, she sings with the mice and cockroaches, all of whom also have human hands and faces, before gleefully eating several of them. The theater audience audibly groaned when she chomped into their flesh. A little too much cannibalism and not enough cinematic surrealism for my taste.
I don’t think this scene was a direct adaptation from the stage show.
4. What on Earth Is a ‘Jellicle Cat’?
In fairness, this term first appeared in a 1933 T.S. Eliot poem, on which the original Broadway musical and by association, this movie, are supposedly based. Eliot used the term as a gesture of endearment to the stray, scruffy, black and white calicos he often saw. The musical and the film took the term several steps further and made it into an indefinable but often sung-about turn of phrase that seemed to net every cat on earth.
The plot, which was often hard to pinpoint, seemed to suggest that Old Doot had come back to the streets to choose the worthiest cat to be the much sought after “Jellicle Choice.” Ostensibly, this winner would get a new life and be redeemed of his wretched street existence.
In the end, the scruffy, “Memories”-singing former glamor cat Grizabella won the prize and was sent off on a magical balloon that … sailed directly into the sun. Grizabella, played by Jennifer Hudson, whose face was contorted into despair and ugly crying for the whole film, did not make another appearance. It is my firm belief that the Jellicle Choice honoree was murdered.
There were myriad problems with this movie. But there were some redeemable elements, too. Elba was okay as the villain, Macavity, until he joined the singing and dancing, which made me laugh to the point that people were staring at me. Taylor Swift as his number two made for a pretty good bad guy, and her musical numbers weren’t terrible.
The actual singing and dancing cast with names no one will recognize were very talented. Apart from their creepy animated costumes, there were some actually entertaining moments. James Corden, a Tony winner and known musical talent, was probably the high point.
My teenage cousin was left with mixed feelings. It wasn’t as good as she’d hoped, but she found ways to philosophize about the plight of the street cats, the malfeasance of the antagonists, and she loved the music. “Cats” is not for those bittered and worn by the world, but if you are a hopeful teen who loves Andrew Lloyd Webber and reading poetry, perhaps this is the movie for you.
In a cinematic world dominated by dogs, this one rare chance for cats to shine on screen was woefully disappointing. I’m still combing the credits for Fidos, Sparkys, and Bandits.