Let’s get real for a second: even if you haven’t actually seen the entirety of Cats (dir. Tom Hooper, 2019), you’ve at least seen the trailer. Or, at the very least, you’ve seen the memes and tweets. And ever since then, our world has not known peace. Maybe the release of Cats was too much for our universe.
I’m here to tell you that yes, it is indeed exactly what you think. It is nightmare-inducing and, yet, it is destined to become a cult classic in the vein of The Room (dir. Tommy Wiseau, 2003).
There is pretty much no point to even attempt to summarize the plot of Cats. Most of it doesn’t make sense. But the entire goal of the film is to be the “Jellicle Choice” chosen by Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) – somehow, to determine this, a sort of talent show is performed. No, we don’t ever really find out what exactly is a “Jellicle Cat.” The majority of the film is made up of introductory songs, to show the audience a quick snippet of a character and their backstory and then transitions into the talent show. The film has a villain, Macavity (Idris Elba), who just seems to kidnap cats who could possibly become the “Jellicle Choice.” But, to summarize, it’s just a bunch of songs instead of dialogue, like most Broadway musicals.
Most of the film’s backlash has been about the CGI of the Cats characters, which is fair. The original musical theatre piece features over the top makeup and costumes, but barely even resemble cats. The film, on the other hand, tries to use the CGI to morph together humans and cats…the result is terrifying. The characters have human faces with whiskers that try to blend into a cat head, Macavity’s eyes are a terrifying and unnatural color, some of the female cats have their female human attributes. Some characters have costume changes where they zip off their fur to reveal an outfit, over more fur, underneath. Not to mention the child faces on the cockroaches. Not to mention that, in the initial release of the film, there is a shot at the end of the film where Judi Dench’s human hand, with her wedding band, is very visible instead of a cat paw. Truly, it is horrifying. The sizing ratio of the cats are off – they look incredibly tiny next to everyday objects such as a chair, the space between a door and the floor, or a window sill. Suspension of disbelief is what the audience is supposed to have in order to fully immerse themselves in a film but, in this case, all of the CGI effects look both too realistic and too out-of-this-world that it is hard for the audience to fully buy into this fantasy world.
That being said, if you’re with a group of people, Cats is a fun movie to watch.
During the release of Cats, I worked at a movie theater and my coworkers and I went to a showing of it. We could not stop laughing and flat out screaming (luckily it was a private showing for us), I even tried to poll my coworkers asking who was the scariest cat in Cats. As we conducted our piracy checks for the film during our shifts, we noticed similar but more subdued reactions from viewers. Wide eyes, soft laughs of disbelief, whispers of “is this ACTUALLY a real movie?” Audiences across the world seemed to share that same sentiment. Online, the memes gently making fun of the film multiplied but, in turn, there were many tweets talking about the songs in the film. Admittedly, some of the songs are catchy – you could find some of my coworkers at the concessions stand blasting “Mr. Mistoffelees” or “Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat” during our shifts. People talked about how catchy they were, how some of their screenings were actually singing along to the songs. Some theatres even did a sing-along screening of Cats, which they promoted as a “rowdy screening.” Seeing a film with other people can add or detract to how a person remembers that film. If it was a positive or negative movie-going experience, in addition to whether or not it was a “good” film, it can affect how people enjoy the film and possibly influence their return. These “rowdy” screenings help to further enhance the bond that people have in the collective movie experience. By screening the film in the rowdy style of The Room or Rocky Horror Picture Show (dir. Jim Sharman, 1975), it allows the audience to fully exhibit their emotions in real time and not be shamed for it, unlike normal showings. People can burst out laughing when Gus the Theatre Cat (Ian McKellan) sings “meow, meow, meow” with the same bravado as McKellan’s character Gandalf. Seeing the film in a group also alleviates the horror of seeing Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo) scream “YOW” and “flirtatiously” prowl around a diner or Bustopher Jones (James Corden) lick his lips as he crawls through garbage. Once movie theaters open back up, there’s a good chance that more rowdy screenings of Cats will pop up, just to help bring some sense of joy into the audience.
The collective experience of seeing a film is so important in influencing a viewer’s perception of a film; the collective experience of seeing a bad, unintentionally scary film just makes for a fun (socially distanced or Zoom) movie night with friends. So maybe, in that sense, Cats is really just what we need during a pandemic.