Back when I was a teenager and at the time deeply involved in modern dance, I went to see Cats on Broadway. It was quite the experience. I didn’t know what to expect but was excited because it was one of the musicals where I’d grown up listening to the music.
Even with all that, it was weird. I loved watching the talent of the dancers and the sheer athleticism it took to do the unique cat-like choreography. Hearing the music from a live performance carries it’s own special kind of energy. With all that there’s plenty to enjoy even if the story itself doesn’t seem to work.
Most people don’t know that Cats: The Musical was originally a collection of poems published in 1939 called “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” by T. S. Eliot. In it, and to no surprise, each poem talks about different cats and their names. In 1954 six of these poems were set to be performed with a speaker and orchestral accompaniment in a work called “Practical Cats”. They were later adapted into the musical using several of Eliots unpublished works. Interesting note, Grizabella, the cat chosen to be the jellical cat and the one who sings Memory, wasn’t in the original Practical Cats book and was also pulled from the unpublished works.
When Cats left Broadway, movie producers saw this as an opportunity. It had earned 3.5 billion in the US over the course of its 18 year run, there had to be enough people interested it seeing it blown into a silver screen masterpiece. There needed to be changes to create a better storyline and the inclusion of several big names to spice up the appeal and thus the Tom Hooper Cats disaster was born.
What they did right
While most will criticize the CGI used to make people look like actual cats, they did a remarkable job making cat/human hybrids. The ears, whiskers, and tails all acted like they would on a real cat. The real problem wasn’t the CGI itself, but the very real issue of creating something that hits all the uncomfortable notes of the uncanny valley. A super realistic cat/human hybrid is creepy.
They used ballerinas and professional dancers to do all the heavy lifting, and thank heavens! Cats is known for its complicated and energetic choreographed numbers and the film lived up to that expectation. I would watch it just for the dancing and dump the rest.
The locations, even if they mostly were CGI were interesting and appropriate. This is more of a challenge than you’d think. Every thing would have to be created in a different scale to reinforce the idea that these people are supposed to be cats.
What they did wrong
They made the movie believing it would be successful. They spent over $100 million and recent numbers say they only grossed $76 million.
Okay, that’s harsh. The Broadway musical did well because people knew what it was going in and there’s something special about a live performance that movies can’t live up to. Trying to make it fit the masses and hope for the same success was asking too much.
Huge mistake #1 – They made the cathumans too realistic to the point they were uncomfortable to watch. There was a thin layer of CGI fur that was all that separated my eyes from what looked like a bunch of naked people running around and singing. Like I said, uncomfortable. The stage musical can get away with it because the dancers are clearly wearing unitards.
Huge mistake #2 – They tried to make it a more compelling story by adding extra elements to help explain what was going on that didn’t really work. It doesn’t matter how you try to explain it, the “story” of Cats will never be a compelling one because 90% of the screentime is spent in all the introductions. There’s no time to build up what any of the important stuff is or why it matters.
Huge mistake #3 – They put human faces on cockroaches and mice. Not even joking. And worse, some of the cockroaches get eaten by cathumans. So gross. And, we just won’t mention the whole part with Rebel Wilson in all her nearly naked cat furriness. I’m scarred for life.
If you loved the stage musical of Cats and want to revisit those moments, you might like the movie. But be warned, they changed the tune of several of the songs. All of the good songs are still there, but a few of the minor ones got a significant face lift. Also, if you enjoy good choreography and watching great dancing, then you’ll at least enjoy those moments. However, there aren’t enough of them to justify wading through the whole movie.
If you’re uncomfortable with the idea of Cathumans, or seeing far too much of Rebel Wilson. or if you really need your movies to have a story and a point, then you better skip this one.
I give the 2019 Cats a 2/5