I have never seen anything, in my life, that comes remotely close to the weirdness that is “Cats.” One exits the film imagining director Tom Hooper, jaw firmly set and eyes agleam, crouched over a MacBook and muttering under his breath “this will work, this will work, this will work”—while no one around him dares to say “you know, Tom, maybe this wasn’t the best idea in the first place.”
It is difficult to articulate the plot of this movie—such as it is. Things begin when white cat Victoria (ballerina Francesca Hayward) is tossed out of her home onto the cold streets of London, where she promptly meets the tribe of “Jellicle cats” who are gathering for an important ritual. One special Jellicle, chosen by “Old Deuteronomy” (Judi Dench), will be selected to ascend to the mystical “Heaviside Layer” and be reborn into a new life. The bulk of the movie’s runtime is spent introducing the audience to the various Jellicle cats, including the hedonistic Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo), the slothful Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson), the enigmatic Mr. Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson), the slinky Bombalurina (Taylor Swift) and the villainous Macavity (Idris Elba). Plus, of course, there’s the weathered Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson), the Glamour Cat who followed Macavity into sin and who has seen far better days. There is nothing more to “Cats” than this. And frankly, I feel like I lost 10 IQ points writing this paragraph.
But even this summary does not do justice to the indescribable madness that is this film. The chief issue is this: Instead of using costumed human actors (as in the original musical) or photorealistic CGI cats (a la 2019’s “The Lion King”), Hooper attempts to split the difference, loading up his film with hideous cat-human hybrids that wear clothes—or don’t—as the mood takes them. Imagine “Avatar,” but way, way weirder, and you have a pretty good sense of what’s going on here.
This staggeringly weird artistic choice has, shall we say, far-reaching consequences. At the risk of being uncouth, I have to point out that what is genuinely upsetting about “Cats” is the sheer deranged sexuality of the thing. While there’s ostensibly no human flesh onscreen (thanks to the much-vaunted “digital fur technology”), since almost every cat’s fur is skin-tone, every big dance number looks like it’s comprised of a horde of naked people. (Scenes involving cats wearing collars give off a positively S&M vibe). One cannot help thinking, at every second, that an “Eyes Wide Shut”-style orgy is about to break out.
I would like to say that the music makes up for this, but it does not. Early on, Jennyanydots leads an impossibly weird dance number involving imprisoned mice and cockroaches, who are also somehow humanoid (the four-armed cockroach-people wear tight leather outfits and look like the misbegotten progeny of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” Rodgers and Hammerstein, and the Bhagavad Gita). Things deteriorate from there, culminating in an ear-shredding rendition of “Memory” that subsumes Jennifer Hudson’s vocals in a wall of orchestral fury.
Last but not least, on the thematic front, I tried at first to read the film as a kind of parable about Calvinism or redemption in general (who truly merits “election” to the Heaviside Layer? The repentant Mary Magdalene figure, Grizabella!), but I cannot bring myself to build out the analogy further. I can pull out a Neoplatonic reading of “Frozen II,” but “Cats” leaves me beaten.
I suppose, at the end of the day, the most striking thing about “Cats” is that fact that $100 million was spent on this film without anyone pausing to wonder whether that investment was a prudent one. Indeed, “Cats” has even forced me to reconsider my long-held belief that a gigantic and epic failure of a film is oftentimes far more entertaining and enjoyable than a safe yet unambitious one. If you, for some reason unbeknownst to me, decide to partake of the Lovecraftian nightmare fantasia that is “Cats,” don’t say I didn’t warn you. There are not enough intoxicating substances in the world to make this movie make sense.