I got word Saturday night from the good people of Twitter that in a move seemingly without precedent in film history, Universal would be sending out an updated “patch” to all the theaters showing Cats, with corrections to the digital effects that had only been quote-unquote finished (not finished) just a day before the movie premiered. Hurry, Twitter urged. My little sister and I promptly bought tickets for a matinee of unpatched Cats at our hometown mall the next day.
There is a picture going around of a shot of Judi Dench with her very human hand, complete with wedding ring, upon her furry breast. We saw that. We saw…oh, the things we saw. But I need to impress upon you that ALL the hands are primarily human, deliberately, as just one of the endless, hallucinatory string of unworldly choices made by this movie. For the nearly two hours I was watching this, I felt like my brain had returned to an infant state, overcome with fear and confusion and, yes, a kind of delight, at beholding so many new and terrible things. Things that my eyes had no frame of reference for. Surreal, exuberant, unnerving things. Sensual things. Images that arrest you in a mix of horror and fascination, something approaching, perhaps, the true meaning of the sublime. I think I emerged with a new wrinkle on my forehead from a sustained frown of bewildered awe. I am grateful I didn’t get a crick in my neck from how often my sister and I swiveled to stare at each other, our hands weakly—forgive me—pawing at each other’s sleeve, looking for ballast in this sea of frolicking, singing human-cat hybrids in which we were adrift, after the little family at the front—our only fellow audience members—at last fled about two-thirds through, leaving us all alone together upon the shores of this brave new world.
Cats is a shockingly shoddily made $95 million fantasia of the most challenging images and concepts you will be presented with in a mainstream movie this year. The editing is appallingly paced, the acting amateur, the jokes leadenly unfunny, the sets a tacky play-land of mystifying proportions, the cinematography not optimized for choreography and the talented dancers so CGI’ed to pieces that it just looks fake anyway. Even the sound mix of this, a musical, is no good! A unifying philosophy for the project, any unifying philosophy, is disturbingly absent. It nags at you. There is no rhyme or reason to which behaviors will be conveyed as cat-like and which human-like, which body parts, which vocalizations. The scale of the cats in relation to the props swells between terrier and hamster. Some cats wear clothes, some do not, and the clothes are their size except for the buttons, which are for some reason massive. Several of the cats wear fur over their fur and if you cannot wrap your head around that, hang on for when I tell you that at one point Rebel Wilson unzips her furred skin to reveal a second, identical furred skin underneath, and that skin is wearing clothes. That same scene includes singing mice with the faces of children.
It is like a fever dream, like an absurdist joke set to Andrew Lloyd Webber. There is a scene where we come up on Sir Ian McKellen lapping milk out of a bowl and all my nerves tried to leave my body. Actually Ian McKellen is turning in far and away the best performance in this, as he is cat-like in a way no one else is even attempting, and would make my fur stand on end if I had it. Honestly, I think I wish they had more. Idris Elba’s sleek brown seal body is haunting. Actors with delicately furred faces and long whiskers over their pink human mouths nuzzle the tawny ruff below the largely unaltered face of Dame Judi Dench, uncanny as a sphinx. Jennifer Hudson’s soft pointed ears flatten back in meek worry as the other cats hiss at her, and actually you know what this effect was pretty good.
Cats is a crime. But it is a crime of passion. This marvelous, monstrous mess is utterly sincere from nose to tail. And listen, listen—I can understand why one could have felt enough Jellicle love in their weird theatre kid heart to make this. I can! Because it’s a day later, and I’m still singing half of these loopy songs. Not so much the first few, but when Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat appeared in his little suspenders and started tap dancing, my sister and I both sat up and brightly muttered “oh, hell yeah.” ‘Magical Mr. Mistoffelees’? A bop! And absolute vocal powerhouse Jennifer Hudson belts ‘Memories’ right into your face, out of her own weeping, bewhiskered cat-face.
Anyway, this is a misbegotten nightmare and the most incredible cinematic event of the year.
★½ / ★★★★★