It was nearly 40 years ago that the musical ‘’Cats’’ made its debut at London’s West End.
A year later it bowed on Broadway, going on to set just about every record possible for a stage production. As of now it’s estimated the play has grossed at least $4 billion.
It’s surprising a major motion picture adaptation had never been attempted given that kind of scratch. Universal tapped director Tom Hooper, who had a rousing success adapting ‘’Les Mis,” convinced it had a surefire hit.
The film’s December release found the prospects for this translation neutered.
Following a disastrous reaction to the early trailers, the studio scrambled ot fix the CGI work, meaning Universal missed the submission window for awards season. Then, as the movie debuted, there were still problems and another computer edit was made. Amazingly another digital print was rushed out — AFTER it began playing in theaters.
Many reviewers leaped to include this title on their worst of 2019 lists. Of those that did not it was because they declared this as one of the worst films of the decade. Well then, let’s sift through the litter box and hold our noses at the ammonia-like stench as we discover what curiosities killed this off.
0:00:38 HEREDITARY MARKER
The production company title cards shows Amblin Entertainment, as Steven Spielberg is an Executive Producer. His outfit held the movie rights to the property since 1990, twice attempting to make animated features out of the musical. After 25 years he dumped off the rights.
That is a sign right there, folks.
0:01:59 SEPTIC INTRODUCTION
London, circa 1930s a woman gets out of a car and tosses a bag over a wall into an alley. When it lands it swells in size due to forced perspective. As the contents move, human-cat hybrid figures crawl about to investigate. We get our first glimpse of the characters in their faux feline appearances. The fur on all is digitally created with complex makeup, yet their noses and hands retain their human forms. The result is an odd ‘’uncanny valley’’ effect, though robots are not even involved.
0:03:02 BLUNT-FORCE DIALOGUE (LYRICS)
As the surrounding gathering of cats slink in they somewhat sing a song, with each cat taking one line. These are an endless series of questions, none of which ever get answered. ‘’Can you look at a king? / Would you sit on his throne?’’ With this introduction it already seems pointlessness will rule the night.
0:03:45 TYMPANIC TRAUMA
As the insurance commercial-level ditty kicks in the characters mention the word ‘’Jellicle’’ often. Constantly. Incessantly. It gets spoken so often I am convinced the cast was paid on a per-mention basis.
Considering the way they deliver this word to the audience via a bucket-loader you have to assume it’s important, but I will not worry about missing out on something. Here’s the thing — they mention being jellicle cats ad nauseum and yet they never go so far as to explain just what in the hell it means..
0:07:11 DEPLETED CHARACTER CONCENTRATION
After climbing a statue to raise their hands to a neon sign in a seemingly reverent manner (I can’t explain it) the song now shifts to every tabby isting different types of…personality types?
‘’Skeptical cats /
Dyspeptical cats /
Political cats /
Clerical cats /’’
And on it goes. I don’t know if these are supposed to be different from jellicle cats, or if they comprise characteristics of jellicle cats, or if they are a clan called jellicles, or if jellicle is something you achieve. I don’t think we are supposed to know.
0:07:51 STUNT CAST
Mercifully the song ends and leaves the abandoned cat standing alone in the street. She is Victoria (Francesca Hayward), and is greeted by a lizard-like cat named McCavity (Idris Elba). He speaks of himself in the third person and how ‘’They say he will win this year.’’ And just as quickly he disappears. I am now convinced this film relies on me operating strictly on faith things may get explained.
0:11:29 ARTIFICIAL NARRATIVE STIMULANT
Victoria meets the lead cat, who has a lengthy passage where he explains the deep importance of cat names. Along with a dance sequence, there are minutes of nonsense on the three names each cat has and the significance of it all.
Yet in all of this pomposity they never managed to give HIS NAME . I had to look it up. It’s Munkustrap, for the record, played by Robbie Fairchild.
0:12:53 EXPLORATORY STORY INCISION
Munkustrap explains the plot to Victoria. There is to be a ‘’Jellicle Ball,’’ overseen by a senior cat called Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench). The cats will perform a song about themselves and, if selected, get to rise up to the Heaviside Layer, to take on a new life. So essentially it’s a feline American Idol, where the winner gets to die, as I understand it?
0:14:12 DEPLETED CHARACTER CONCENTRATION
To explain to Victoria she is taken to a window to look in on a corpulent feline, named Jennyanydots, played by Rebel Wilson. Munkustrap explains that she is a Gumbie cat, which is maybe different from a jellicle cat…except she is going to perform at the ball, so she is also a jellicle…I think.
As Mukustrap explains; ‘’She sits, and sits, and sits, and sits -- And that’s what makes a Gumbie cat.’’ Well, that clears up…nothing at all.
0:15:40 RUPTURED OPTICS
Now we get treated to Wilson’s histrionics, and it ain’t a joy. It begins with her spreading her legs on the floor and scratching her crotch -- extensively. Next is unfunny slapstick, then we see she keeps mice contained in a kitchen cabinet. They are an unsettling image, complete with children’s faces.
0:17:26 IATROGENIC DIRECTION
Instead of reining in the antics Hooper allows the scene to unravel into a nightmarescape. We see a procession of cockroaches, or rather a chorus line of dancers dressed up as vermin. Wilson’s character repeatedly plucks and consumes roaches, complete with crunching sound effects.
Then she stands and promptly unzips her fur. For some reason she is wearing an outfit and sequins — under her skin. This tableau is so off kilter at this point I’m unclear if I’ve mistakenly taken peyote, or if I need to.
0:22:53 WEAKENED IMPULSE
Immediately we are introduced to the next cat, Rum Tum Tugger, played by Jason Derulo. He is a cat who is never satisfied. We know this because his song is all about being unhappy when he makes choices. That shallow and pithy character trait I explained in one sentence? It took six minutes of histrionic warbling to be conveyed.
0:26:09 ELEVATED FORESHADOW LEVELS
Out in the street Victoria encounters a bedraggled Grizabella, played by Jennifer Hudson. She sings a weepy, non-melodic dirge that makes little sense. Other cats come out and essentially mock her to get her to leave. We’re told she was a star performer, but then went off with McCavity so now she is despised.
I tell you all of this because it is presented as important.
0:27:35 COMEDIC ARREST
It’s apparent there’s really no plot here, just a series of characters we get introduced to who wax rhapsodic — literally — about themselves.
The next is Bustopher Jones, played by James Cordon. He’s a fat cat who has an elevated sense of self and likes to eat. His entire song is about what he likes to eat, and where he consumes it. The set design is all oversized garbage cans and large prop foodstuffs. It’s all quickly forgettable, like a fast food meal.
0:32:25 INVASIVE PATHOS
At Jones’ conclusion McCavity materializes onto the scene. He taunts Bustopher to another garbage can and when he dives in he disappears. Moments earlier McCavity encountered Jennyanydots and he made her disappear in a wisp. He is gaudily presented as the apparent villain in this enterprise, which helps us as no character has been particularly appealing to this point.
0:34:34 VISUAL ADRENAL INFUSION
Victoria falls in with a pair of mischievous Calicos, Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer. They’re trouble makers who sneak into homes and cause havoc. Their whole scene is a piffle, but most of it takes place in an oversized home set which is at least visually distracting.
0:38:34 ARTIFICIAL NARRATIVE STIMULANT
On a barge on the Thames River Bustopher and Jennyanydots materialize, wondering where they are. McCavity appears and explains how he wants to chain up all the competition so he can win the jellicle ball competition. There is a gruff cat named Growltiger who guards them, explaining by ‘’song’’ who he is in the most unmelodic way. The lyrical dialogue is really wearing thin.
0:42:34 BLUNT-FORCE DIALOGUE
Back in town the cats converge for the arrival of Dame Judi Dench as Old Deuteronomy. Dench was cast in the original London play back in 1981, but dropped out after getting injured during rehearsal. She was given this role which had previously only been played by males. You get the sense of the struggle here as the attempt to rhyme the name was best made with ‘’My legs are old and tottery.’’
0:49:23 PHYSICS DISORDER
As the herd of cats moves indoors — while intoning the word ‘’jellicle’’ another 46 dozen times — there’s an extended dance sequence, but I’m pulled away with each flash of Deuteronomy on screen. She is adorned in a huge fur coat. Umm…whose fur is it, exactly? Other cats? Her own? I’m not sure which is more disturbing, but this trends with seeing a cat unzip her skin, so I guess we’re just wallowing in pelt porn here.
0:55:15 SCRIPT GRAFT
In a rare effort to offer up some quality we’re served a couple of capable ballads. Victoria walks out to the street to see Grizabella, and Jennifer Hudson offers up a tame version of the hit song ‘’Memories.” This is followed by Victoria giving us ‘’Beautiful Ghosts.’’ This is a new song for the movie, written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Taylor Swift. I do not know why T-Swizzle wouldn’t be singing her own song, but then why ask about making sense?
0:57:58 CAUTERIZED PLOT CAVITY
Victoria comes back inside and meets Deuteronomy, who asks if she is going to watch her make ‘’the jellicle choice.’’ Victoria is surprised by this, saying she didn’t expect to attend because she’s not a jellicle. Deuteronomy tells her, ‘’Not -- yet, perhaps.’’
I have all the confidence in the world that, even though they have not come at all close to explaining just what in the hell constitutes a jellicle, they will explain in detail how one becomes a jellicle.
0:58:09 STUNT CAST
Well we’re basically an hour into this rodeo and we’re still being introduced to characters. Next is Gus The Theater Cat, played by Ian McKellen. Far be it from me to dictate what’s embarrassing for this old pro, but it does strike me as demeaning seeing him hiss, meow and lap cream from a saucer.
1:04:04 IRREGULAR PLOTBEAT
Gus goes on stage and basically speaks through a very unmelodic tune (one wonders if the songs that are listenable are simply made so by comparison). While walking off McCavity appears, under the guise of wanting his autograph. He then wisps Gus away, except this makes no sense, given he’s kidnapping them to prevent them from performing.
1:07:05 VISUAL ADRENAL INFUSION
The next performance is Skimbleshanks The Railway Cat. It’s a rousing number with a decent song and a vibrant tap dance scene. It’s one that McCavity surely should have put a stop to, but again we see the feline in question disappear only after impressing everyone.
1:14:58 IRREGULAR PLOTBEAT
Swift lowers into the theater on a golden moon, singing a torch song about McCavity. She is showering the theater with catnip, dispensed from her bedazzled canister, and then sprayed out from the moon itself like a version of feline chemical warfare.
McCavity himself shows up and demands Deuteronomy select him to go to the Heaviside Layer, as he’s the only remaining cat…you know, besides the huge score of cats they just drugged. He is refused, so he zaps Deuteronomy with him to the barge with the others. Drama! (Not really…)
1:22:14 ARTIFICIAL NARRATIVE STIMULANT
As the cats recover they need a solution, so they turn to Mr. Mistoffelees, a magical cat. After numerous times attempting to bring back Deuteronomy, and the cast repeatedly singing his theme, he somehow has brought back the old cat back to a different part of the theater. This leads to them singing his theme even more loudly now.
1:24:23 COMEDIC ARREST
On the barge McCavity zips off, and the captive cats stage a rebellion. There is a visible hairball gag, Jennyanydots unzips her skin once again, and then when confronting Growltiger she says, ‘’Don’t mess with the crazy cat lady!’’
Yes, all of this played out, in under 30 seconds of screen time.
1:31:33 RUPTURED OPTICS
Victoria goes back out in the street and coaxes Grizabella to come inside and perform the eleven-o’clock show-stopping song ‘’Memories.” Hudson tears into it nicely, but I have to wonder about Hooper’s decision-making here. I get that it’s an emotional set piece, but with all the CGI they could not see a way to erase Hudson’s post-nasal drip in this scene?
1:35:38 CONTINUITY FAILURE
Grizabella is selected as the ‘’winner’’ who gets to die and have a new life — via hot air balloon. As the cast sings a rewritten version of the Mr. Mistoffelees theme song she rises out of the theater. On the roof McCavity leaps and grabs a tow line to ride off as well, but he loses his grip and falls, stranded now on a tall statue.
EXCEPT -- All movie McCavity materializes anywhere he chooses. Why does he not simply wisp into the balloon gondola and ride off with Grizabella, who we were told earlier is an ally of his anyway?
1:37:44 COLLAPSED CLIMAX
As dawn arrives the entire cat clan convenes in a square and they repeat the hymn-like song and raise their hands to some feline entity that is never shown. Then Deuteronomy turns to address the audience with some trenchantly sung words, including this line — ‘’So first, your memory I’ll jog / And say — a cat is NOT a dog.’’ I have to assume they felt this was a deep wisdom.
The orchestra wells up and the entire cast, in choir-like fashion, repeats this line. I swear, I could have dodged this entire enterprise given my grasp of this sentiment prior.
1:40:32 CELLULOID TOE TAG
As expected, Deuteronomy turns to Victoria and decrees that she is truly now a jellicle cat. Also as expected, how this came to pass is not at all explained. We could assume that her being nice to Grizabella did the trick, except every other single jellicle cat hated Grizabella, so this does not link up.
But this is me trying to apply logic to a production that not only defies such but revels in not making sense. It uses the term ‘’jellicle’’ more often than the Smurfs use the word ‘’smurf’’. They never explain its meaning, which means they can use it to mean anything, ultimately rendering the term meaningless.
Universal Studios amazingly thought this could be an awards-nabbing enterprise. After dropping $95 million on the budget the studio spent over $100 million more on marketing. Then with advance word already tanking expectations -- and opening opposite the final ‘’Star Wars’’ — ‘’Cats’’ debuted with a hairball sum of $6.5 million.
Ultimately the return for this is so dismal that even after all secondary releases are tallied the studio stands to lose about $100 million on this title.
If a movie could possibly have nine lives this title spent them all. It’s garish, and boisterous and and so convinced of its own import that it represents an opulent Broadway stage production perfectly.
Which is exactly where this property should have remained.