Cats, the 1981 Andrew Lloyd Webber musical based on a book of cat poems by T.S. Eliot, is weird. It’s about a tribe of cats singing and dancing in the hopes of being selected to be reborn into a new life. Cats, the 2019 Tom Hooper-directed movie based on said musical, is also weird. This is all obvious. Watch a clip from the musical or watch the trailer to the movie, and your brain will quickly alert you to how uncomfortable a bunch of professional entertainers with cat ears, tails, and fur, gyrating around while singing poetry from 1939, makes you feel.
The weirdness of the musical, however, is balanced out by the enduring music and incredible talent that has kept the show successful and relevant for decades. The same cannot be said for the film. Looking past what made the musical such a success, what’s left in the movie is an unsettling husk of grotesque creative decisions that answers the question “What’s the worst way to adapt Cats into a movie?”
Like its general weirdness, the most obvious disturbing aspect of the movie is the visuals. Draping the cast in CGI fur-bodysuits is certainly a choice emblematic of everything that’s wrong with visual effects in 2019, but it’s the details you notice throughout the movie that make it all so gruesome. This includes human-cat hands and feet remaining fur-free, the defined human muscles (Idris Elba’s Macavity has visible abs so now I can’t sleep), and most egregiously, the human faces. Some faces blend into the CGI better than others, but poor Dame Judi Dench as Old Deuteronomy looks like she is emerging from the carcass of Garfield. The CGI is distracting, inconsistent, and forever will be wedged between the uncanny valley and a portal to hell.
The cast itself isn’t as big an issue. Newcomers Francesca Hayward as Victoria and Robbie Fairchild as Munkustrap have the most screen time and are definitely trying, but the big-name supporting roles are clearly checked out. Most show up only for one number, and then promptly leave the movie. The most egregious example here is very miscast Taylor Swift as Bombalurina, who shows up to sing a painfully, uncomfortably sultry rendition of “Macavity,” drugs everyone with catnip, and then dips hard.
What is a big issue though, and by far the biggest problem with Cats the movie, is the plot. The musical notoriously doesn’t really have one; it just bops from one cat to another as they sing about themselves in the hopes of being selected by Old Deuteronomy to basically die and be reborn. The movie’s solution, keep in mind it’s generally a good thing for your movie to have a plot, is to not make any significant changes. Macavity pops up after every other song to remind you he’s a bad guy, but that’s it. Little effort was made to create a cohesive plotline to better weave in the story between songs or to add characterization. It leaves the characters and (catchy/classic) songs feeling hollow and unnecessary. I shouldn’t have to point this out, but good movie adaptations make smart choices that complement the medium of film. To this point, Cats the movie says, “Nah dude, it’s fine.” It’s not fine.
Perhaps most emblematic of everything wrong with Cats the movie is its final minutes. (Spoilers I guess. I know you don’t care, but thanks for reading this far though.) Judi Dench, in her horrific Garfield skinsuit, turns to the audience, breaks the fourth wall, looks you dead in the eyes and recites “The Ad-dressing of Cats.” When watching this play out on stage, this may be an emotional moment. On-screen, this is the most terrifying and existential sequence of a motion picture I’ve ever experienced. Everything about it is unsettling and off, and just doesn’t work as a movie.
Cats the musical is weird and it always has been weird. That’s what’s so great about it. Cats the movie is weird for all the wrong reasons. It answers the question “What’s the worst way to adapt Cats into a movie?” all too well, and raises another one we may never have the answer to.