The Belvedere Journal
Why Was “CATS” Such a Failure?
Updated: Mar 2, 2020
From the perspective of someone who really likes musicals
You've probably already heard of the cinematic masterpiece that is CATS (2019), but why is it that anyone (and everyone) wasn't lion when they said this film was a catastrophe?
“I understand why people say they don't like musicals”
I love musicals. A bit too much, probably. I know all the names of the Broadway theatres, despite never actually having been to New York. I can tell you who won what at the Tony’s last June. I spend my time listening to cast recordings while performing each role to my audience (my audience being the objects in my bedroom). So, when I looked at my phone one fateful day this summer and got the notification for the upcoming “CATS” trailer, I dropped everything and watched it.
Then, I watched it again because I had no idea how to process what I had just witnessed.
“CATS” is my personal musical theatre guilty pleasure. I know it’s weird, I know it’s not very well written, I know I shouldn’t - but I can’t help but absolutely lose my mind whenever “Macavity” starts playing. “CATS” is the longest running closed Broadway show, the film is filled with A-List celebrities, Academy Award winner Tom Hooper directed, the choreographer for “Hamilton” was on board; so, why was it such a failure?
To start, we must address the part of “CATS” that the internet was morbidly fascinated with; the CGI and character design. On stage, there’s an expected suspension of disbelief. You walk into the theatre knowing you will have to fill in some of the gaps for yourself. You know the actors in “CATS” are far from feline and although up close their stage makeup is a bit unsettling, the magic of the theatre forces you to believe that there is a group of cats singing and dancing about being a Jellicle (which, surprisingly, isn’t Aldi’s brand of cat food). On screen, that doesn’t happen. The character design for this film adaptation “CATS” sits in that weird part of too-human-yet-not-human enough. The Uncanny Valley theory is proved by the existence of this film and the fact that 80% of it is close-ups doesn’t help.
It is heartbreaking because these unthinkably talented dancers’ work is what makes “CATS” what it is. There are many examples I could use to explain just how ineffective this CGI was (a chorus line of cockroaches thrown in your face before the twenty minute mark being the first that springs to mind), but there is one character that tends to come to most people’s minds when “CATS” is mentioned. Jennifer Hudson’s cat, Grizzabella, looks as though she has unblended concealer on her face and spends most of the film in an extreme Tom Hooper hand held close up with actual snot running down her face, but no tears. She wears a massive, tattered, fur thing with a sparkly jacket underneath that every nan has owned a variation of at some point. Jennifer Hudson delivers “Memory”, the big ballad that makes the over 30 year old white woman or mezzo soprano Rachel Berry type (of which I am guilty of being) practically wet themselves. I should be crying for Jennifer Hudson cat at this point, yet I can hardly stifle my laughter.
Then there's the plot and world building. There was an attempt to give the story more substance through trickster magic cat Macavity, played by Idris Elba (a sentence I never thought I would write). It seemed as though Tom Hooper saw “Infinity War” and decided he wanted to do that, too. For some reason, the cats disappear into a cloud of dust and are transported to a boat on the Thames so Idris Elba cat can win the Jellicle choice at the Jellicle Ball. Each time Idris Elba comes in to do his evil thing after another song where a cat sings about their personality, his little exit word changes from”meow” to “ineffable" and even “Macavity”. There is no mention to the audience of what a Jellicle cat actually is, just an ensemble number that is extremely daunting even to those who have knowledge of the stage production of “CATS”. I spent most of my viewing experiences (yes, I have seen the worst rated film of 2019 twice in cinema) explaining why these cats want to go to the Heavyside Layer, what the Heavyside Layer actually is and why two cats have magical powers.
Speaking of magic, magical Mr Mistoffolees was at the centre of a romance storyline in this version of “CATS” that consisted of cat nuzzling, awkward flirting and very heavy breathing. Why was there so much breathing in this film? I liked the live, on set singing in Hooper’s “Les Misèrables”, but these two shows could not be more diametrical. “CATS” is a dance show with stunning choreography, strange characters and next to no plot, all intended to simply entertain. “Les Misèrables” will leave you weeping by the end because of the messages of class, revolution, the consequences of love and various other complex themes. There was a tonal confusion that made it seem as though only Jason Derulo and the musical theatre performers had seen “CATS” at all. That’s right, I think out of the Academy Award winners and big names that Jason Derulo did the best job concerning acting and understanding the show. There was a lack of the whimsicality and bold certainty that typically comes with “CATS”. There were a lot of elements of this film that would have been brilliant isolated but, in total, caused utter confusion. Not just for viewers, but also those who made this film. The first words that left my mouth after it finished were “I understand why people say they don’t like musicals”.
It seems now that all Broadway and Hollywood can produce are unnecessary remakes and characterless corporate products. There seems to be nothing innovative or inspiring, just clear cash grabs. The theatre and performance’s origins couldn’t be further from this modern form exploitation and capitalism. “CATS” did get a lot of things wrong, but I admire it for taking big swings. For not just being another bland, forgettable film in a sea of many, many others just like it. If there’s one thing this film wasn’t, it’s forgettable. I had a brilliant time watching this car crash and in all honesty, the songs have been running around my head since I saw it again. Musical Theatre is often very hard to access. The large theatre districts (the West End and Broadway) are extremely expensive places to live or even visit. In order to see all musical theatre has to offer, you would need to have a very, very large disposable income. This becomes very ironic when you find that a great majority of musicals tend to centre around the destitute. Musical theatre is an extremely unique and beautiful art form and it stings when people think that all musicals are that stereotype of no substance, “let’s sing anything and everything”.
But, how can we expect anything different when it’s so hard to access? The general audience who won’t have much knowledge of “CATS” will be lost from the moment the film opens. It was a bold choice to adapt one of the strangest musicals that is so controversial within the theatre community into a film but a lot can be learnt from this attempt. If there’s anything I wish could be taken away from this film, it’s that James Corden needs to learn that references to his weight have never been funny and that some shows need to be left to just the stage, especially if the main focus of the show will not translate (in this case, the idea of singing and dancing humans pretending to be cats). But, anything that makes musical theatre more accessible is a great step in the right direction. Was “CATS” mentally accessible? No. However, I have never laughed and smiled more in the cinema in my life. The first words that left my mouth after it finished were “I understand why people say they don’t like musicals”. Even if it is a mixture of horror and hilarity, I would rather feel that than the nothingness that comes from most of the safe, boring films that are churned out. So, I urge you, see “CATS” if you want an experience that I don’t think we will ever get again in cinema.