I unironically enjoyed the Cats movie. Now before my professional, academic, and social futures are irreversibly compromised by this possibly disastrous public admission, I shall add a flashing neon caveat. By no means was 2019’s Cats (year specified because the 1998 version is superb) without flaws—on the contrary. Of the mistakes the film could have made in adapting an already polarizing musical, it opted for the creative choices most likely to cause division and mass critical condemnation. Which they did.
The primary problem with Cats is that it catastrophically misjudged what mainstream audiences found appealing about the original stage production. While it is almost impossible to say what exactly that source of wide appeal is—likely contenders include Andrew Lloyd Webber’s powerful score, the show’s family-friendly nature (the unsettling seductive cat shoulder movements throughout aside), or simply “Memory” alone—I can tell you confidently that the hybridization of humans and cats in the original stage play was not the catalyzing factor in pulling ticket-buyers into the theater. And yet this element is the creative hill on which director Tom Hooper is willing to die.
The decision to represent the Jellicles (who, for the uninitiated, are a generic tribe of British cats) as humans with cat-like features and behaviors was the film’s primary and unignorable creative choice. One might expect the “suspension of disbelief ” to kick in at some point in the 110 minute-runtime, or that maybe you, the audience member, will become adjusted to seeing humans holding their twisting, curling tails upright and twitching their feline ears. But this catharsis never occurs. The film gets a few things right, for example Ian McKellen masterfully and personally playing a nostalgic elderly actor pining for his glory days on the stage, and Jennifer Hudson belting "Memory" in a stunning performance that would have earned her an Oscar if not for the film she was in. But each small victory is overshadowed by the film’s positively dumbfounding creative choice to photorealistically hybridize humans and cats.
As the film progresses further into this strange dreamscape, it seems that the filmmakers intentionally try to find new and increasingly disturbing ways to manifest this human-cat hybrid premise. The original musical does not seek to call attention to the fact that the “cats” on stage are played by humans, nor does it include much humor of any kind in the first place. Perhaps the most urgent example countering the original approach is the sequence starring Rebel Wilson’s Jennyanydots, the “Old Gumbie Cat” (take up your concerns with T.S. Eliot, not me). The scene takes the film’s choice to hybridize humans and animals a step further; a gathering of mice, who seem to be owned or controlled in some way by Rebel Wilson’s character, are depicted with the faces of human children. Cockroaches with human faces join in on the dance number, some of whom Rebel Wilson greedily devours as they scream for their lives while the survivors continue to gleefully dance a two-step under the coffee table.
To say the least, the “Old Gumbie Cat” sequence exemplifies another problem rampant within the film. It more or less destroys T.S. Eliot’s classic characters, beloved since 1939, that may have helped make the original stage play so widely adored; a production whose creators were impeccably true to Eliot’s vision for the characters. In the original show, the Jennyanydots character is a busybody matronly cat, an amusing and lovable grandmother figure who seeks to educate the vermin in her home so they do not turn to, in Eliot’s playful verse, “wanton destroyment.” But Tom Hooper’s Cats turns this character into merely a source of comic relief—offensively so, as the majority of the film character’s humor revolves around her weight and seeming lack of intelligence, which the film combines and conflates into a harmful archetype that Rebel Wilson willingly and bombastically portrays.
Another beloved character the film destroys is Bustopher Jones. (Might I add that Bustopher’s least favorite restaurant, “The Tombs”—as named in T. S. Eliot’s poem—is, in fact, the namesake of Hoyas’ favorite watering hole.) Eliot’s Bustopher, and the character of the original stage play, is a dandy—a stout sophisticate who adores fine dining, and a lot of it. He dons a top hat and tails to travel from club to club on London’s St. James Street, feasting on new culinary delights with refined exuberance and gusto. The other cats look on with pride in his individualism and stylish dignity, welcoming him into their tribe as one of their own. Meanwhile, Tom Hooper casts James Corden to portray Bustopher, again, as comic relief—tastelessly sourced by the character’s obesity and Corden’s pithy stylings of humor. The original show’s character is not meant to be mocked for his love of food; Webber’s song for Bustopher employs a courtly organ and chapelesque choir for much of the number. But Hooper takes this beloved character and twists him into one who discards his dapper clothes and dives into trash cans to gluttonously feast on meat scraps, gobbling raw chicken bones and doing snow angels in piles of trash. One nauseating close-up shot offers the viewer a view of CGI water pouring into a spittling cat-Corden’s mouth.
One could argue that T.S. Eliot’s authorial intent for the world and characters he created in his poems does not matter when crafting an adaptation. One could argue the same for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s interpretation of those same original characters. One could also argue that departures from source material—in this case the original stage play—in an adaptation should be tested for the sake of creative experimentation. But I pose two rebuttals to these assertions. When the source material is already conceptually and visually polarizing, risking $95 million on a creative venture ripe with prime potential to disgust and divide audiences was a project that should have set off every alarm in NBC’s 30 Rock headquarters. While the artist within me is ecstatic that a film this off-the-beaten-path in a creative sense was actually produced—by one of the world’s biggest media conglomerates, no less—I am concerned that Tom Hooper’s film has damaged, possibly permanently, the already uneasy reputation of an artistic and musical masterwork.
As said, I unironically enjoyed Cats, but I have been unable to settle on any definitive reasons for this other than my loyalty to the original musical and what it stands for. The show’s avant-garde integration of charming British children’s poetry with an Andrew Lloyd Webber score that incorporates a myriad of musical genres, and its inexplicable success despite its unusual, potentially (and frequently) alienating premise, is immensely appealing to me as an example of a perilous creative venture that paid off and earned the love and respect of audiences worldwide. The story of the original stage production is a tale of a nonconformist underdog rising to success, a love letter to creators, an encouraging word to the artistic renegade.
But Tom Hooper’s Cats pays the poetic melancholy and elegant zeal of the original musical neither respect nor the honor of a nostalgic callback. Instead, the film is most intent on showcasing and reveling in the oddness of the human-cat hybrids to the point of taking its over-the-top-depiction of these hybrids to an unintentionally humorous extreme. A film already balancing on the edge of a knife, so guaranteed to be inflammatory, cannot afford self-depreciation. The film feels comfortable reinterpreting, nay, absurdistly defaming classic characters, because it is already so boldly avant-garde from the get-go that it feels it has the agency to be blusteringly left-field in any way it likes. The film’s overconfidence led to its own demise, as well as that of the reputation of a work of art beloved worldwide for nearly four decades. We can only hope that Steven Spielberg someday revives the animated Cats he worked on for a spell in the 1990s.
May Webber’s music and Eliot’s characters one day be granted the film they deserve.
Photo Credit: Universal Studios, Geraint Lewis/Alamy