February 7, 2020
Cats is not so much a movie I watched as it is a movie that happened to me. It’s difficult to know where to start with this strange, surreal, LSD-trip of a film, so let’s start at the beginning, in 1953, when T.S. Eliot sat down one fine day and decided to write Old Possum’s Book Of Practical Cats, a story about some jellicle cats preparing for the jellicle ball under the jellicle moon. Got that? Good, me neither. Let’s proceed.
In 1981, Andrew Lloyd Webber decided to bring Cats to the stage in the form of a sung-through musical, featuring body-suits, industrial amounts of face-paint, and a glorious cast of 80’s hairstyles. At 38 years old, it is the fourth-longest-running musical on both Broadway and the West End—although it maintains a sort of Marmite-esque status, in that people tend to either hate it or love it. Given Cats’ extreme Broadway success, one might say that it existed in the right medium already, and that trying to squeeze still more money out of it, as Hollywood is wont to do these days, was, perhaps, not quite the best idea.
Which brings me to today. In the early 2000’s, Universal Studios bought the rights to the film, but it wasn’t until 2016 that Tom Hooper was announced as the director, and not until Christmas of 2019 that the film was finally released—and then re-released, owing to the fact that the original version’s editing was only completed at 6am the morning of the premiere. The movie lost around 70 million dollars, and received a 20% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Since Christmas, the Internet has been flooded with memes, scathing reviews, and, equally, a whole lot of love for the film. So, what exactly is going on with Cats? Let me explain.
I should, perhaps, begin with the jellicle in the room: as you may have gathered from the memes, these cats are, indeed, and how shall I put this… rather eager for intimate relationships with each other. I should point out that this is actually a much bigger problem in the musical, but then, the cats in the musical are markedly less naked-looking than the ones in the movie, so it evens out. This issue is exacerbated by the fact that some of the cats wear clothes, while others don’t, and some start out wearing clothes and later remove them—which seems to imply that these cats are, in fact, prancing around in the nude.
On the subject of clothes, I have to spare a moment to talk about the fur coats. Yes, that’s right: some of these cats, including the colony leader, Old Deuteronomy, wear cat-sized coats made from the fur of, presumably, other cats. Given that Dame Judi Dench quite ostentatiously wears an apparently cat-sized wedding ring on her extremely human fingers, despite the glaring absence of any husband or wife in the movie, it is my personal belief that that coat is, in fact, her late mate.
Speaking of unspeakably disturbing creative choices, no Cats review could be complete without mention of the mice: the cute little mice with the faces and voices of human children that Jennyanydots holds captive, forcing them to sing and dance for her, and maybe eating them as well—although that is, mercifully, left ambiguous. Not so in the case of her captive cockroach army, also with human faces, whom she devours alive while they shriek in incomprehensible agony. A family film, this. PG.
But enough about the little things. Let’s talk about the story: because there is one, vague and unintelligible though it may be. The premise of the film is that the jellicle cats have gathered to sing songs about themselves at the jellicle ball, an annual competition judged by Old Deuteronomy. What are these cats competing for, you ask? Oh, it’s quite straightforward: death. The cats believe that by dying (i.e. being yeeted into the sun in a flying chandelier) they can be reborn into a new, better life. And these cats are eager to die—in fact, the cat who is finally chosen spends most of the movie as a social pariah, and her being chosen to die is presented as the ultimate show of acceptance of her by the jellicle community. (Although, if you still have one or two brain-cells left by this point of the movie, you might be wondering why, if they wanted to give her a better life, they couldn’t have just let her back into the group.) There’s a lot to unpack here, but, personally, I have only one question: in a world with magic cats, philosophy cats, mischief-making cats, gumpy cats, and pirate cats… did no one think to try being a Therapy Cat?
There is so much more I want to cover in this review, but, in the interest of space, I’m going to skip over Jennifer Hudson’s near-industrious snot production, Taylor Swift’s conspicuously large cat chest, Francesca Hayword’s wasted ballet talents, and Jason Derulo’s milk kegs. Instead, I’m going to focus on the one thing that made this movie worth it for me: The Grey Cat. This cat (whose name, apparently Munkustrap, is not mentioned once in the 110-minute film) serves as the narrator of the story and seems to be the leader when Old Deuteronomy is not around. And, at least in my interpretation, his relationship with Old Deuteronomy gives me the distinct vibe of… hm… let’s call it “transactional intimacy”. He also, over the course of about three minutes, experiences the full spectrum of human emotion, without saying a word. Robbie Fairchild as Munkustrap carries the entire movie, and I would watch it a hundred times over for him and him alone.
At the end of the movie, Old Deuteronomy stares directly into the camera and informs us, “Now you understand cats.” No, Judi, I really don’t. What I do understand, though, is that Cats, fever dream that it is, will be immortalized in time as my new favorite meme-watch. Cats is out of cinemas, now, but as soon as it becomes available online, I would encourage all of you to gather a group of friends, some Wholesome Tap Water, and a pair of cat ears, and watch this movie. And then you, too, will truly be a jellicle cat. Whatever the jellicle that means.