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Movie Review: “Cats”

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.

 
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Posted by on January 1, 2020 in Fantasy

 

Movie Review: “Frozen II”

Over the last ten years or so, I’ve reviewed a lot of movies—many of them exceedingly abstract. But I didn’t have any difficulty following or comprehending the Wachowskis’ “Cloud Atlas,” Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” or Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!”

But I did not understand “Frozen II.” The sequel to Disney’s 2013 mega-hit couples gorgeous animation and songwriting with an ever-more-muddled storyline that never fully coheres.

We pick up with Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel) several years after the original film. Elsa rules as Queen of Arendelle, a Scandinavian-themed city-state on the edge of a grand fjord, and seems to have finally mastered her elemental ice powers. But soon, Elsa starts hearing a spectral voice calling her northward, to a mysterious forest shrouded in near-impenetrable fog—where, many years ago, a great battle took place between explorers from Arendelle and the tribal people of Northuldra. That battle stirred up the forest’s elemental spirits of earth, air, fire, and water; the spirits have since grown discontent, endangering Arendelle’s stability. So, off to the forest Elsa and Anna—accompanied by Anna’s boyfriend Kristoff, his reindeer Sven, and anthropomorphic snowman Olaf—go.

It eventually becomes clear that Elsa’s ultimate destination lies still farther away: Ahtohallan, a legendary river that allegedly contains all memories and will unlock the secrets of her identity. But Ahtohallan is also a place of primordial truth, where the lies on which Arendelle itself was built will be revealed.

That’s a lot of plot for a kids’ movie—and we haven’t even gotten to the third act. (There’s no “big twist” in this movie like last time around, but fair warning, spoilers to follow.)

Elsa’s arrival at Ahtohallan is a euphoric, metaphysical experience, backed by one of the franchise’s most stirring anthems. Abstract imagery swirls across the screen as she ventures deeper into the river’s heart, progressing into a kind of “cloud of unknowing.” And at the climactic moment, she beholds her long-lost mother—who seems to be a fifth nature spirit, the one who promises to restore harmony between all the other elemental powers.

Immediately thereafter, Elsa plunges into a black abyss of memory within Ahtohallan, where she learns that the battle that triggered the forest’s elemental disharmony wasn’t a misunderstanding between two different peoples. In true colonialist fashion, Arendelle’s envoys betrayed the peaceful Northuldra people in order to construct a dam in their lands. That dam towers high above the fjord in which Arendelle itself now stands: destroying the dam and releasing the river will restore peace in the Northuldra forest, but will wash Arendelle into the sea. Elsa herself then immediately freezes—just like Anna in the original film.

There’s a lot to unpack here. To start with the obvious: though it never comes fully into view, “Frozen II” has some of the most radical political messaging I’ve ever seen in a kids’ movie: According to this film, any nation with a history of subjugation or oppression must be utterly destroyed, its foundations washed away, before anything else can be built. Howard Zinn (or, if you prefer, the New York Times’ “1619 Project”) would be proud. Now, I certainly don’t agree with that approach to politics (and in the context of a children’s movie, it feels nakedly propagandistic), but I have to grudgingly admire its audacity. Who knew Disney had the nerve?

But “Frozen II” pulls its punch at the last second, refusing to commit to its own thematic vision. As the story reaches its crescendo, Elsa—magically unfrozen after Anna triggers the dam’s collapse—dashes into the fjord and uses her magical ice powers to divert the tidal wave, saving Arendelle. As a result, it’s altogether unclear what the narrative takeaway is meant to be. Is this last-second rescue meant to imply that symbolic acts of moral righteousness can paper over the need for real structural change? Is this an Abraham-and-Isaac scenario where, following Anna’s choice to sacrifice Arendelle, Elsa (as an avatar or manifestation of the divine) then shows mercy? I have no idea, and I’m not sure directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee do either.

The film then concludes with a garbled bit of dialogue suggesting that Elsa herself is the “fifth spirit”—but also that Elsa’s mother had two daughters, both of whom are meant to bridge the gulf between nature and humanity—and…uh…I got nothing. Anna is crowned queen in Arendelle, and Elsa chooses to remain with the Northuldra. Roll credits.

I have many questions about the internal logic of…well, basically everything that happened in the last half hour. So, because I have an incorrigible desire to make things make sense, I propose an esoteric reading of the film that treats it as a Gnostic exploration of Neoplatonic Trinitarian theology.

To grasp this, consider how St. Augustine deployed a “psychological” metaphor for the Trinity. Just as memory, reason, and will are involved in every voluntary action, so too are the three persons of the Trinity involved in God’s activity. God the Father, the eternal and unbegotten, corresponds to memory: in Him all of time is contained, and from Him all things proceed. God the Son, the Logos, corresponds to reason: the ordering by which God makes the world. God the Holy Spirit, in turn, corresponds to will: God’s active, all-shaping presence in the world.

These themes play out—in heterodox fashion—beneath the surface of “Frozen II.” It is difficult to see Elsa as not, in some sense, a messianic figure. After all, early Gnostic tales of Jesus’s childhood are full of stories of Him frightening others with powers he does not fully understand (sound familiar?) and bringing living creatures forth out of inanimate matter (“Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”). Moreover, in “Frozen II,”  Elsa’s primary quest is a journey to Ahtohallan, the source and repository of all memory—a repository that is metaphysically identified with her long-lost mother, who is (in essence) an all-unifying spiritual presence. That is to say, the Daughter (Son), who proceeds forth from the Mother (Father), is driven by an urge toward mystical restoration and unification—a process that closely tracks the Gnostic conception of spiritual progress as ascent into an ever-more-ineffable experience of God. Onscreen, this comes to a head when Elsa enters into her mother’s presence at the film’s climax and is—quite literally—transfigured.

On this reading, Elsa’s confusing concluding statements about the “fifth spirit” make more sense. Elsa’s mother (memory) is the “fifth spirit”—but so is Elsa herself (as the embodiment of will) and so too, in some sense, is Anna (as the embodiment of reason—she, after all, is most properly suited to rule Arendelle). Thus, what “Frozen II” is secretly about is the restoration of the cosmos through a return to the divine wellspring from which it emerged.

Now, do I think the filmmakers consciously intended any of this? No—and if I’m wrong, I hereby vow to eat an entire snowman bite by bite. But I like this reading rather more than the alternative, because it allows me to believe there’s some cohesive vision underlying the story. Eisegesis is fun! (Just don’t ask me to explain why Elsa spontaneously froze, because I have no idea.)

None of this is to say that “Frozen II” isn’t a fine time at the movies—because it is. Disney’s animation has never been better, and the songs are even stronger this time around (if you were underwhelmed by Menzel’s take on “Into the Unknown,” rest assured that the Panic! At the Disco version is a real banger, and Kristoff gets a hilarious hair metal-inspired power ballad midway through). Maybe I’m just thinking about this story stuff too hard and need a five-year-old to explain things to me. 

Or, maybe I just need to let it go.

 
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Posted by on November 23, 2019 in Fantasy

 
 
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