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In Defense of Cats: A Review (Kind Of)

About fifteen minutes into the film Cats, Rebel Wilson appears, as Jennyanydots the Old Gumbie Cat. As she describes how she helps take care of the animals in her kitchen, mice and cockroaches with human faces appear. Jennyanydots then grabs at her fur and begins unzipping it, stepping out of her skin to reveal ANOTHER CAT SUIT. As they all keep dancing to a swing tune, the camera spins around upside down and she begins eating the humanoid cockroaches. At this point, you will probably know if you will enjoy Cats. 

Cats is not a “turn off your brain and enjoy it” movie, but your brain may need to shift into a different astral plane. It creates a world with absolutely no internal logic, where some cats, all known as Jellicle Cats, wear clothes, know how to use magic, and compete to gain another life at a competition called the Jellicle Ball. Their leader, Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench), will make the Jellicle Choice to choose which one of their cats will go to the Heaviside Layer and be reborn. You pretty much know what the Jellicle Choice will be, since it’s the only cat who really goes through a struggle, but there are a number of cats competing to go to the Heaviside Layer, and each cat “auditions” for Old Deuteronomy in song-and-dance format. If you have any more questions, particularly about what separates a Jellicle Cat from a normal cat, they will not be explained. 

I always enjoyed the musical Cats because of its sheer insanity; anyone who is putting on a production of Cats is willingly giving themselves over to a surreal yet emotional experience. It should appeal to absolutely no one, but the sheer ludicrousness and commitment to the bit makes it admired by many people, including me. Film critics, on the other hand, did not like the new movie, and I became worried that Tom Hooper’s direction and Digital Fur Technology would overshadow the greatness of Cats. Thankfully, I found this to not be the case.


Is Cats a good musical?

Yes. The various songs are all pretty good and well-orchestrated. Aside from the opening number, “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats,” they straddle a fine line between the 80s synthesizer-horn combo of the originals and more modern 2019 arrangements; the new funk arrangement of “Rum Tum Tugger” is a highlight, complete with a cockney Jason Derulo yelling “MIIIIIIIIIILK.” “The Old Gumbie Cat” and “Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer” dip their toe into jazz, “Bustopher Jones” is a Beatles-esque pastiche with a jaunty tuba, and the classic hit “Memory” is still pretty good (It was never my favorite, but it’s performed well by Jennifer Hudson). Taylor Swift and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new song, “Beautiful Ghosts,” however, is not good in context at all. Performed by Victoria (Francesca Hayward), and Swift over the credits, the lyrics and music are both too conventionally modern and easy to understand. The joy of Cats is combining 1980s music with 1880s lyrics, and the new song, while not bad, feels completely out of place. Annoyingly, the sound mixing is strange, too- the music threatens to drown out the lyrics in the big group numbers, and it’s really bad. 


Is it a good adaptation?

Yes and no. It fixes the fundamental problem of the musical, which is that it’s way too long. By cutting a half hour from the show, it streamlines the pacing, cutting the intricacies of the cat naming rituals (a cat has three names, and each one is laboriously described in detail!) and the “History of the Cats” segments (which do very little to define a very poorly defined world, and are also racist). Focusing on the Jellicle Ball makes sense, and there’s a little more of an interesting plot so it’s not just a talent show starring cats. However, the problem with much of the first half of the movie is its comedy. The musical is played deadly seriously and earnestly, but the film has James Corden and Rebel Wilson on hand to mug and quip through the first three or four songs before they go away. Without Corden and Wilson, the film is earnestly serious and dramatic, but with them, it makes me question whether Tom Hooper has ever seen a comedy. Corden and Wilson’s fart and crotch jokes are awful, but they go away during the better second half, which is closer to the musical in tone. 

Who fares the best out of the cast?

None of the big-name actors, that’s for sure. Robbie Fairchild as narrator Munkustrap and Laurie Davidson as “magical cat” Mr. Mistoffelees are really great; Fairchild does well at explaining what little is to be explained, while Davidson conveys an entire character arc with his face, which is what anyone going under Digital Fur Technology needs. Australian tap dancer Stephen MacRae brings down the house as Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat, but his character has no dimensions beyond “likes trains.” For the major stars, Judi Dench conveys the well-meaning authority of Old Deuteronomy, but I wish the character was still played by a man so they could hit more of the bass notes in the finale. While Jason Derulo doesn’t really sing too well, he creates a personality that I wish was in more of the film. Francesca Hayward plays Victoria, who has been added as the audience surrogate for the movie; she’s good at standing around and watching the jellicle cats but doesn’t do too much more than that. Idris Elba seems vaguely embarrassed to be there, and while he has a lot of screen time (I’d give him second billing), he doesn’t sing at all, making it hard to judge his performance compared to the others. Rebel Wilson does a decent job with a terrible part, James Corden does an awful job with an awful part. Changing Bustopher Jones from an overweight cat who is held in high esteem and eats at the fanciest feasts to a lazy fat slob who eats from the garbage is gross, and he has a series of “2019 jokes” like the crotch hit that are clearly meant to appeal to the eight-year-olds who haven’t already walked out in deep confusion. 

How about that Digital Fur Technology?

I mean, it’s fine! You get over the weird cat-human hybrids in about ten minutes, and I honestly don’t think it’s a really big deal. It works for the dancing and I never found it that creepy anyway, so I guess I’m in the minority on this. There are a few shots that feel very unfinished. The most bizarre thing, as picked up in the trailers, is the movie’s relationship with scale. The cats are way too tiny- at one point, they’re smaller than a dinner plate, and they struggle to hold a human pearl necklace. Skimbleshanks’ tap dancing on the railway is great, but why are the railway tracks so large and the cats the size of mice? Only Tom Hooper will understand.  

Cats is fundamentally a dance show. How’s the dancing? 

It’s pretty good! Critics complain about the fast cuts and lack of wide shots, but I wasn’t overly bothered by it even if I wanted more dancing at times. The Jellicle Ball scene, in which all the cats get down and dance for about five minutes, is genuinely fantastic, and the first time that I truly loved a scene in the movie. (The second half is much better than the first.) 

So what about how when critics called it weirdly sexual?

These critics have not seen CATS: The Musical. Rum Tum Tugger (played by Jason Derulo) in the musical is aggressively horny in a way that any PG-rated movie could not hold a candle to. Derulo does an okay job with his character, but he’s nowhere near as horny, and neither are most of the cats. There are occasionally creepy sex bits, such as when Old Deuteronomy arrives and all the cats shake sexually. Oh, and Macavity (Idris Elba) takes off his coat to reveal a six-pack of abs which makes him look so much more naked than everyone else. 


Would a person who’s never seen the musical like it? 

They’d probably like it more than the musical, due to the faster pace and slightly more sensical plot. I have never seen Cats live, but watching the movie is more entertaining than watching the official video of the show on Youtube. I took four friends who had no idea what they were in for (and a fellow Cats fan) and while all four certainly did not love it, they did not think it was bad or even so-bad-it’s-good, more “good, but strange.” Due to the Digital Fur Technology and complex lyrics, kids will absolutely hate it (my friends were quite confused at times so I had to explain it to them in the near-empty theater). 

Overall, I would give Cats a 7/10, with strong caveats that some of you will absolutely hate it. It feels like it was made exactly for me.

And finally,

A List of All the Galaxy-Brain Stupid Moments in Cats that Made Me Laugh Out Loud

  • Idris Elba’s Macavity yells “MACAVITY!” before he does anything. He must have yelled it at least fifteen times
  • The cats have a mix of paws and hands but I’m pretty sure Judi Dench just has her real hands, at one point we visibly see her wedding ring
  • Taylor Swift drugs all the cats by flying in on a plastic moon and shooting catnip at everybody
  • Jason Derulo, at a “milk bar,” saying “No more milk. Actually, wait. MIIIIIIIIIILK” in the middle of a screeching electric guitar solo
  • Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat begins randomly levitating like he is about to get raptured, and it is never explained
  • No one knows what Macavity looks like even though his face is on every wanted poster in town
  • The amount of times they said the word “jellicle”
  • Rebel Wilson hits Ray Winstone in the cat crotch and then says “Don’t mess with the crazy cat lady!” even though she herself is a cat
  • Ray Winstone cannot sing. He sounds like he’s choking and I wondered if he needed medical help. 
  • Macavity is described as a “ginger cat” when he is not ginger but they were too lazy to change the lyric
  • Ian McKellen wins the Oscar for “Saddest Lapping of Milk Out of a Bowl” 
  • The synthesizer plays a really obvious wrong note, and they left it into the soundtrack
  • The editing is absolutely insane, cats appear out of nowhere like jump scares but it’s actually because they don’t know how to cut
  • In the middle of the train song, about fifty cats all go “WHOO WHOO” in unison like a train whistle
  • So much of the choreography is about the spreading of cat legs. So much of it. 
  • Remember the cockroaches with human faces? Jesus Christ.

Go see Cats immediately. Run.