My Earnest Review and Analysis of Cats: the Unpacking No One Asked For
by Roxanne Manders
It’s easy to cast off Cats. Like a chewed up mouse toy waiting for you under the covers, you fling it to the side to relax back into the warm bellowing blankets of Oscar season.
You’d think by now we were far past such a “horrifying” film making it all the way to the box office. That the brain trust of the film industry would have figured out how to avoid unloading 100 million dollars (before marketing) into a supposed bad movie.
But this cat belongs to Schrodinger. For every reason Cats should be considered a “bad film” and a success at the same time. Yes, it’s fair to call the visuals horror, but I still cried during the reprise of Memories. And I’d still show Ian McKellan’s main act to my nieces and nephews.
On the journey of picking out the bad and good aspects, it does become apparent that every choice was the result of the crossroads of culture that we find ourselves in now.
The three pop culture movements I believe influenced Cats-
One. It is a guinea pig of the still-budding film animation of the future.
Two. It is a result of kink-defending and the sexless sex we seek of androgynous bodies.
Three. It is victim of the promised rewards of adaptations and the celebration 80’s nostalgia.
One. Someday computer generated images will be truly seamless on screen. But we are not there yet. We are currently in the uncanny valley on the road to Computer-made characters being indistinguishable to what we could see in person. One day we will be there, but this new wave of design style with Pikachu, Will Smith’s Genie (a slight improvement on Billy Crudup's Dr. Manhattan), Sonic, and now Cats being only the latest to offend the masses, there is no reprieve soon in sight. We are trudging our way to the time when these animations will look as creaky as Princess Leia’s corpse parade in The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker is now.
But of course the design of the characters cannot be completely blamed on the means of execution. They tried to make a real species based on the theater versions mimicking a cat. But Tom Hopper, the director, made a huge mistake that’s taught to Theater 101 students- you can lay a plank of wood down on a stage floor and say “This is a road” and the live audience will nod along, “that’s a road." In a movie if you lay down a plank of wood and say “this is a road” the viewers will say “...but that’s a plank of wood.”
In the 80’s the costume designers dressed up a bunch of theater majors in skin tight fur unitards and said “these are cats!” And everyone nodded along “those are cats.” And for some reason in 2019 they thought smoothing away the lines of the costume with computer graphics would give them the ability to say “these are cats” when the viewer of the film has no choice but to say “...but those are abominations!”
Which is why I think the best film experience of Cats would be doing away with every notion of a real earth-based cat, and giving the same allowances to Cats as we do with the flying monkies of Wizard of Oz.
And I say give these allowances, not because it has the same quaintness and quality as Wizard of Oz, but just like it’s recommended to forgive the man that killed your family, not because he deserves it, but that releasing them of your anger frees you from walking around with that load in your heart. You are being kind to yourself by being kind to the backwards space creatures of Cats.
But this is still asking more of the audience of a PG-rated Christmas film, more in line of an ambiguous art house film or early Shamalan.
So what could have been a more relaxing experience? Cartoon cats. Like The Aristocats or the 1994 Lion King. Computer generated cats like in The Secret Life of Pets or the 2019 Lion King. Or live action cats with voices imposed on them like in Homeward Bound or Look Who’s Talking Now.
The film industry has shown us three ways they can give us talking/singing animals. It was actually pretty gutsy to stare at a screen filled with bastard cat-people for hundreds of hours and think it was a good alternative to any of those choices.
We, the humans, view cats as adorable. Not sexy...typically.
So why not give us actual cute cats, singing Memories and The magical Mr. Mistoffelees? That would have been adorable! That would have actually been a safe-bet, seeing as how the internet is famously built on the sharing of cute cat videos.
Which is why the scene that works the best is Ian McKellans scene, because the performance is cute, not sexualized, done in a very self-aware way by Ian McKellan and then treated by the costume design team and graphics team as cute. So his little dances and scratching his ribs get to be endearing. And it helps a lot he stands on a stage during this bit. We can forget about sexy fur legs and enjoy his catness. But it still would have been so much more fulfilling to see a house full of little kittens replying in joyful applause instead of the sexy cat people.
When Taylor Swifts face is revealed on screen though, it was pretty. Call me crazy, it was. Her wide eyes have been made fun of for years but it suits the medium. It also reminded us how bland Francesca Hayward is as our lead. Speaking of which they did an odd white-washing of Hayward. Jennifer Hudson, Jason Derulo and Les Twins got to reflect their real-life tone, but it’s a bit offensive to suggest a darker kitten couldn’t carry this film, so they animated her lily-white? To somehow try to please modern audiences with the human casting but in animation be loyal to the 1981 casting values? This perplexing aspect I feel would have been a more popular talking point had it not been dwarfed by the visual hellscape that is the entirety of this movie.
The next two influence on Cats I think attribute to why it was important to the filmmakers to go with creepy/sexy cat-people over adorable kitties.
Two. This was actually the perfect time to explore the somewhat genderless space of cat-people. Most of the women were given flat chests and all the women were given whiskers. But the curve of the human leg, hip bones, post anterior chain, arms and head sizes/shapes were left to be displayed and celebrated in the same light the human form is displayed and celebrated in a classic ballet. The human silhouette is mostly uninterrupted. And the human silhouette with a suggestion of cat fur does not a cat make. We are left with blackish humanoids that bring to to the androgynous target we seek in today’s fashion. While clothing trends are leaning toward boxing/baggy clothing to disguise the difference in female and male bodies, the film focuses on diminishing the differences of the bodies themselves.
The slow normalization of trans bodies has inspired art-makers in every medium to explore the in between of traditional gender. And very little separates the male and female cats in the film. All given flat chests, whiskers and smooth genitals. It’s exactly this equalization that furriers are attracted to that genre in the first place. They don’t have to think about and be distracted by their own bodies and wonder if they are good enough to have sex, everyone wears a fur suit therefore the playing field is leveled. It’s this making the cats gender-neutral AND sexy that the film captures the essence of the androgyny movement in fashion, beauty and casting.
Much is said about the desensitizing of youth toward sex with 24/7 access to porn on our pocket computers, and how it must be damaging. But perhaps this de-sensitizing has it’s silver lining. We can be over the fact that sex exists. Over that there are hordes of people lined up to show their genitals for money. That lust bucket is filled, and we are free to wonder…”ok but what if everyone was covered with fur? What if I didn’t have genitals at all?” Every new generation is said to have increased intelligence because of our capability for hypothesis. Perhaps the faster we process the usual, the far-fetched becomes ever more accessible? We claim to be horrified by Cats, but imagine how truly horrified a 1910’s audience would have been of it. So then imagine the monotony of it for a 2080 audience. I reveal in the idea. What will thrill them? What need for space-adventure, for truly out-of-this world plots will they crave?!
Back down to earth, there is one female cat that is given a remarkably more heavy bosom than the other female cats and this is Taylor Swift. And I think that’s due to our cultures traditional need to sexualize female pop singers outweighed the need for consistency in expressing the androgynous ideal.
Three. It's been an undying trend that major studios would much rather bank on a adaptation/sequel/remake than original content, and there is a somewhat flickering lust for 80s/90's nostalgia. So in addition to subconsciously exploring gender-free bodies, designing the cats in keeping with the 80's 90's stage version was perhaps an attempt to bank on late-century remembrance of Cat's as well. Memories indeed.
It seemed they didn’t touch the original 80's musical composition at all. We are guided through the cat universe on the wings of synth horns. Spunky canned drums highlight mischievous cats antics and old school piano/violin swell around our ballads to make your mom and me cry into our puffy holiday sweaters. It’s cheesy - not the most refreshing but completes the smorgasbord all the same.
Unfortunately sour tropes from the past made it in too. They paid too good of an homage to "slap stick of the rotund", with James Cordan and Rebel Wilson being the marked physical comic relief and only full-figured cats.
There are also obvious “black” supporting characters that play like the crows in Dumbo or the hyenas in original Lion King. Why? Why fall back on this lazy form of representation? I watched through my hands the cats with gold chains and gold teeth seethe at the white-washed ingenue cat. There’s too much history to ignore these choices.
But just as Happy Day's and That 70's Show found success being 20 years in remembrance, we've moved on to glorifying the 2000's. So while they successfully captured the sparkle of the 80's, maybe In the Heights will be better timed, although lacking sexy cats. Tear.
So how was the singing? It is a musical after all.
Bad. It was bad. Francesca Hayward (Victoria), Rebel Wilson(Jennyanydots), Robert Fairchild (Munkustrap), Naoimh Morgan (Rumpleteazer) and Danny Collins (Mungojerry), all who's voices were milk toast. As far as I could tell no one was ever off pitch (a professional production wouldn’t allow it with auto-tune) but the sound was hollow and unsatisfying. But funny enough, the motion capture was so good one can see Rebel Wilson being far more tight in her shoulders and chest than experienced singers. These voices were boring enough it allowed room in my head for me to daydream about heavy-weights the likes of Dolores O'Riordan of The Cranberries, Tonnes and I, Amy Winehouse or Hozier, and what they could have done with these songs. The songs are endless, a near opera, so the voices need character and depth. They were too focused on matching the casting choices of safer times on broadway. Many times while watching Cats, I’d close my eyes and just experience these voices as they were performed before visually impaired with computers.
So when Jennifer Hudson is given her time to lay into Memories, I was positively affected. Her acting (felt through her voice, not seen on screen) was heartfelt and full. And although it is unfortunate, knowing Jennifer Hudson’s real life tragedy, does influence me when experiencing her art. Knowing that this being has experienced the level of loss that Memories tackles is exactly why Jennifer Hudson can probably lay easy claim to Memories, so she’s casted well for it. Hudson’s voice wails through the crushing lyrics. She doesn’t aim for a rasp to define her characters damaged life, she weeps through it with a fullness flying out of her, unleashing the loss of a once beautiful life. Her instrument is gorgeous. Just don’t look at the screen.
But in a down-turn they immediately slam into another ballad by Francesca Hayward, making me slump in my chair. Back to being batted around by Schrodinger's Cats.
But ultimately I was more entertained by Cats than I have been by many other films. Hollywood keeps churning out buddy cop, fish out of water, heist films, one safe film after another. For better or worse, Cats is different. It is sticky and thrilling. It has its problems. But so does your neighbors 18 year-old tabby with diabetes she refuses to put down, it has its charm. You give it a scratch on the chin, and promptly wash your hands. You expose yourself to weird upsetting art, and get to make fun of it. And you count your good deed for the day.