Wednesday, June 12, 2024

‘Cats’ Is the Jellicle Choice

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I don’t know how to put into words what I’ve just seen. Cats the film is a movie that demands to be seen in the theaters in all its nightmarish glory. My brain was so busy trying to process what I saw I had trouble sleeping that night. It is not a good movie; it is an amazing one.

Look, I’m not going to lie to you, Tom Hooper’s cinematic adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical requires a lot of the audience, at times more than the audience has to give. I could never quite believe or comprehend what I was watching, yet I was never not utterly transfixed. Cats is, after all, an interpretive dance musical about…cats.

Cats is about cats and that’s one thing you must remember or nothing you see transpire on-screen will seem quite as, dare I say it, magical. Actors of stage and screen, all with towering talent, have gone to “cat school”, submitted themselves to having their bodies digitally animated to look like cats, and prowl about on all fours as they sniff, swat, and sing. It is as baffling and horrifying as it is unforgettable and delightful. 

Hooper has taken the stage production and made a Lovecraftian horror for all to witness while also streamlining the narrative to make it more comprehensible. The result is pure unadulterated cinema the likes of which we may never see again. Bad movies are often bad but few reach the dizzying heights of Cats.

Sit back now as I try and sum up this glorious bizarre bastard child of human imagination: A death cult of alley cats, house cats, and tomcats, called Jellicles gather once a year to put on a talent show. Old Deuteronomy (Dame Judi Dench) then judges the winner before sending them to the Heavy Side Layer in a hot air balloon to die. 

While that may be the plot it is by no means the point. Again it’s about, and I can’t stress this enough, cats. The point is watching Sir Ian McKellen commit to Gus the Theater Cat as if it were Lear. He even drinks water like a cat, a scene I can never unsee.

In the middle of all this swirling madness prances Francesca Hayward as Victoria. A white cat, who’s been abandoned. She is found by the Jellicles. A newcomer she is a lithe charismatic and engaging guide through the deeply silly world of Cats. 

The effects in Cats are ghastly but not without its own peculiar brand of character and personality. Hooper’s aesthetic and dramatic decisions are as baffling as anything I’ve seen in recent memory. Take the dancing Rockette cockroaches in the Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson) musical number. They have tiny animorphised human faces and sing in high pitched squeaky voices but also scream in agony as Jennyanydots eats them. 

In that same scene, Wilson’s cat has an outfit change as mortifying as anything dreamt up by Eli Roth. Like an old Looney Tunes cartoon she unzips her fur to reveal a sparkly dancer’s vest underneath. Jennyanydots peeling off her flesh takes a few seconds for the brain to realize what is happening and register she is NOT, in fact, peeling off her flesh just her fur. Either way, I nearly climbed out of my seat in horrified awe.

All of this is not easily forgotten but hardly the point. The point is Macavity the Mystery cat (Idris Elba). A black cat who skulks around the frame whisking away other cats who might win the contest. Using his magic powers he transports himself and his abductee from one place to another by saying his name and vanishing into a cloud of smoke. A more joyous sound I’ve not heard all year such as when Elba’s squeaky voice rings out through the air as he meows out “Macavity!”

Hooper’s decision to forgo fur-suits and instead rely on computer animation is one of the great cinematic boondoggles of the decade. Shot by Christopher Ross the effects at times distract from the inherent lunacy of the show. The uncanny valley is too much. At times it appears as if the bodies will move without the faces creating a cloud of anticipatory dread. 

The version I saw was not completed with scenes featuring some of the actors with human hands and feet but cat bodies. Universal Studios has released another version of the movie, with the effects cleaned up. Or as I call it, “the coward’s version”.

But the uncanny valley of Taylor Swift as a slinky burlesque Bombalurina is only a fourth of the issue. The issue is modern audiences have heard of Cats but have not really registered its full magisterial horny weirdness. It’s a show from the ’80s being adapted and released at the end of a decade at the start of the 21st Century. Not to be hyperbolic, but I don’t think the current generations were quite ready.

The theatricality is overt but not in the cool detached way people are so lovingly used to. Cats has an earnestness and sincerity to it that is troubling if you’re not used to it. Not to mention Hooper has an unprecedented belief in his own greatness which borderlines on grand self-delusion. But his delusion infects the movie allowing it to transcend mere absurdity into something altogether rare and touching.

Many movies think they are great, Cats believes it is great. It’s a bone-deep belief that comes from deep within its Jellicle soul.

Profoundly goofy Cats goes off the rails in ways which defy description for those who haven’t witnessed it. But then Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson) belts out “Memories” and we are all but transfixed by the sheer talent and emotion expressed in the treble of her voice. Hudson’s rendition of the classic ballad captivates. Ross camera captures every detail of Hudson’s face, snot and all, as she sings for her…death.

I can’t put into words how much glee “Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat” brought me. Still, the number while catchy is all but visually botched by Hooper and Ross. Skimbleshanks (Stephen McRae) has a tap-dancing number and the duo opt to focus on his feet and then cut to his upper body before cutting back. Normally this kind of editing is done when the person dancing is not actually dancing but considering McRae is a dancer it defies basic choreographic logic. 

Cats is bananas. But it’s old bananas. I honestly think it’s more we haven’t had such a bug nutty sincere offering from a major studio in so long we’ve forgotten what movies used to be like before superheroes came along and robbed us of style and imagination. 

Many will scoff and mock Cats because it is easy to do so. But as much as I make fun of Cats I also bought the Broadway version shortly before writing this review. I’ve caught myself singing “Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat” or “Mr. Mistoffelees” as I go about my daily routine. The line between great art and bad art is a thin one.

I’ve seen people say “I’ve seen Cats so you don’t have to.” This is entirely the wrong attitude when dealing with such a  unique and silly spectacle. Yes, Cats will likely haunt you until the day you die. But in today’s world of utterly forgettable art by corporate committee, that in of itself is more than a reason to recommend it. If that isn’t enough the songs are catchy, and the dancing is great. But more than anything else I guarantee there’s nothing else quite like Cats playing anywhere near you.

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures

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