Silver Screen Spuds: Cats

I’m going to start this out with a confession – I am a Theatre Kid. If I had gone to the high school in Mean Girls, I would be sitting at the table of weird Theatre Kids singing & performing for each other. Because of this, I had heard of Cats a long time before they announced that they were making a movie and when they did announce it, I joined the wider theatre community in an out-loud groan.

Cats the musical premiered on the West End and on Broadway in 1982 and ran for 21 and 19 years respectively. In London, Cats received rave reviews, while it met with mixed feelings in America, which definitely still remain. In general, the musical was applauded for its artistry but criticized for its practically indiscernible plot. So when the star-studded cast list of the film was announced, there was a large reaction of confusion, dread, and excitement.

Here’s the thing ­– if you find musical theatre, surrealism, absurdism, Rocky Horror Picture Show, or any other cult classic films entertaining, Cats was made for you. First of all, the disturbing animation style literally made me say, “Has technology gone too far?” out loud in the theater. I knew they were trying to combine the original musical costume design (which was adored) with the realism they were attempting to infuse the movie with, but the end result made me feel like I was watching one of those bonus feature "Technical Goofs" they had in old DVDs of the animation glitching. It was almost right, we knew what it was supposed to look like, but it wasn't so close it was scary (I’m looking at you, Polar Express).

The film is one of the first modern attempts to use the Spectacle of theatre on the big screen. Seeing something in front of you in real-time that seems impossible or larger than life is one thing that has brought people back to the theatre again and again. Watching Peter Pan fly right above you, seeing Elphaba’s green skin in Wicked, even the puppetry in Lion King – witnessing the creation of magic in real life is something that CGI can’t really compete with. As much as we love to watch Avatar, there’s something about being in the same room as something that looks real that’s just… Different. And Cats did everything in its power to make us feel that through the screen. It was trying to combine the technological abilities we have access to through film (close-up shots, CGI, super easy scene transitions, accessibility) and combine them with the original musical’s individual flavor.

There are a couple of problems with this that the film’s creators didn’t think of, or didn’t know. Number 1 is that the modern audience isn’t as entranced with Cats as the older generation was/is. Something about watching people crawl around in leotards doesn’t really do it for us anymore, and in the past 28 years, there have been a lot of musicals that do the whole animal thing a lot better while giving us a storyline that doesn’t make us feel like we’re high. Number 2 is that part of what makes really absurd theatre work is the fact that we’re in the same room as these actors but we’re far enough away that we aren’t really confronted with their faces. If you put me in a theater with Jennifer Hudson singing her heart out in a catsuit, I’d probably be able to forget about the whole cat thing and focus on the song and her emotions. Because she’s literally in the same space as me, I feel an obligation to give her the attention and focus she deserves at that moment, I’m returning the energy she’s currently putting out. However, if you zoom in real close to a video of Jennifer Hudson singing her heart out 8(?) months ago while her cat outfit is also real close, it’s going to be hard to keep me from laughing. As much as she is feeling, I’m still looking at the weird edit of her face on a cat and I’m painfully aware of just how distant this is from real life.

Despite all of this, I actually really enjoyed Cats. It wasn’t at all that it intended to be, but it’s the kind of awful, hilarious, absurd, and uncomfortable movie that kept me laughing and enthralled the entire time. I was on the edge of my seat squirming because I truly expected some kind of thinly veiled cat orgy to break out at any second (they really wanted you to think those cats were sexy… Like, really badly). The fact that these really famous actors agreed to be in this movie is not only mind-bogglingly ridiculous, but it makes watching them pretend to be cats like 3 times funnier than watching the unknown actors do it. When Rumpleteaser (that’s a real character name, I can’t make that up) is trying to do the same British accent as her (clearly natively British) partner Mungojerrie but keeps putting heavy emphasis on her ‘r’ and absolutely botching the accent, it was painfully enjoyable, but not nearly as fun as watching Rebel Wilson zip off one layer of her skin/fur to reveal a different layer of skin/fur that somehow has an outfit on.

In conclusion, the potato version of Cats is these Wasabi & Ginger flavored Lays potato chips. The makers of Lays may have thought they were revolutionizing the potato chip industry and that these would be a big hit, but what they really made was a gag gift for years to come. There may be a handful of people who actually genuinely enjoy these chips as chips, but the vast majority of people who encounter this chip will either strongly dislike it, be angrily confused by it, or find themselves laughing so hard at the concept and execution that they find they like it anyway. It’s always worth trying, in my opinion.  

Image Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7