An Apotheosis or a Murder Most Foul?: The Miraculous Garbage Fire That Is “Cats”

I don’t even know where to begin with “Cats,” the 2019 film based on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s unprecedentedly successful and stupidly influential 1981 musical of the same name based on a 1939 book of children’s poetry by T. S. Eliot called “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.”

People had previously told me that the entire plot of “Cats” is just two hours of cats introducing themselves. “Phooey!” I had always thought. “It’s such a successful musical, there’s certainly got to be more than two hours of cats introducing themselves.”

Turns out that I was dead wrong and by watching “Cats,” I had doomed myself to spend two hours sitting through songs about cats introducing themselves. The “story” begins with Victoria (Francesca Hayward), an unremarkable white cat, being dropped off at the gates of a mysterious society. Cats surround her and inspect her before breaking out into song about Jellicle cats — a special type of cats who are all exceptional in some way. In the original musical, the cats directly address the human audience, but in the movie, the audience follows Victoria as she learns to navigate the complex and nonsensical world of the Jellicle cats. By chance, Victoria has appeared on the night of the Jellicle Ball, a night when each Jellicle cat competes for their chance for Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) — an old cat and community member — to allow them to enter the Heaviside Layer and become reborn as a new cat.

Along the way, Victoria meets a number of cats who all introduce themselves with an elaborate song and dance number, including but not limited to: Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson), a lazy tabby cat who trains mice and cockroaches at night; Bustopher Jones (James Corden), a fat cat who eats scraps from humans’ garbage; Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo), a heartthrob who only wants what he can’t have; Gus — short for Asparagus — (Ian McKellen), a retired theater cat who lives in poverty; Skimbleshanks (Steven McRae), a railway cat; Mister Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson), a magical cat; Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson), a washed-up glamor cat who is hated by all; Macavity (Idris Elba), an evil cat with the ability to apparate; and Bombalurina (Taylor Swift), a femme fatale cat who is obsessed with Macavity.

The plot is nonsensical in the most banal way. Macavity, the main antagonist, kidnaps all of the contestants in the Jellicle Ball so that he will win by default. He kidnaps Jennyanydots, Bustopher Jones, and Old Deuteronomy. Mister Mistoffelees, using magic, eventually makes Old Deuteronomy reappear at the Jellicle ball. Victoria eventually convinces Grizabella to sing “Memory,” a surprisingly gorgeous song about her woes, and Old Deuteronomy grants her the chance for a new life (essentially yeeting her into the sun).

My primary issue with “Cats” isn’t the intriguingly appalling character design or even the film’s general lack of palpable direction. What I find most offensive about the film is that the setting makes no sense whatsoever. I’m generally all for artistic license when it comes to altering aspects of the real world for fiction, but the nonsensical setting of “Cats” made me, for the first time, question the outer boundary of my suspension of disbelief.

The musical repeatedly implies — and flat-out states — that all of the cats have human owners, and given that one of the prevalent settings is Trafalgar Square in London, we can infer that the film takes place in the real world. For example, a “Milk Bar” (unrelated to the human Milk Bar chain) was disproportionately large for the cats, who were able to sing and dance on the counter with ease at the abundance of space. The cats also easily danced on top of the skinny railway tracks during Skimbleshanks’s song, which begged the question: what size are these cats? There is no adult cat in the world that is small enough to fit on top of a single railway track. Some of the settings, such as the Milk Bar, however, have clearly been constructed with the intention of catering to cats, and no human characters appear in the film. The sheer ridiculousness of the premise of Cats suspended my disbelief enough to believe that perhaps the Jellicle cats lived in a version of our world that was populated by cats, but the scale of the settings is too implausibly distorted for the cats to live in their own version of London. 

In most media, I find it entertaining and exciting to mentally prod at the seams of the fictional universe and seek answers to my deeper questions about the world’s existence. “Cats” was an exception, as once I began to question the existence of the fictional universe, I discovered that my enjoyment of the film hinged entirely on not thinking about worldbuilding too much. The entire film centers on the magical Jellicle Ball, which, in and of itself, is just depressing. All of the cats so highly covet the Jellicle Ball’s prize — the chance to be reborn and reinvent oneself — which, as we discover when Old Deuteronomy ultimately chooses Grizabella, involves launching cats in hot air balloons to the sun. It is unclear whether this method of being reborn is an apotheosis or a murder. Can we thus infer that all cats desire, more than anything else in the world, to die by being yeeted into the sun? The Jellicle cats hate Grizabella for her former involvement with Macavity and forced her to live in isolation, so her desire for a peaceful death and rebirth is understandable. On the other hand, most of the cats, such as Bustopher Jones, Jennyanydots, and Mister Mistoffelees, actually seem to enjoy their lives. Are we, as viewers, expected to believe that these seemingly joyful and spry cats are merely painting on happy faces as they restlessly await their chance to die by being launched into the sun?

As a side note, one lyric which duly entertained and confused me was in Bombalurina’s song “Macavity,” in which she sings, “He’s broken every human law, he breaks the law of gravity.” Given the inconsistency of the setting, it is impossible to know whether or not Bombalurina is being serious or hyperbolic. Macavity has canonically committed tax fraud. Given what we know about this feline monster, tax fraud is probably one of the least bad things he’s ever done. The song also describes him as “the Napoleon of crime” — wasn’t Napoleon the Napoleon of crime? Anyway.

The film also garnered controversy for its copious fatphobia. Two of the first cats to introduce themselves, Jennyanydots and Bustopher Jones, are larger cats who quickly become the butt of fat jokes in the first half of the film. They also become two of the first cats kidnapped by Macavity, and  the film portrays their inability to escape captivity on Macavity’s ship as a result of their innate laziness which is implied to come from their size. While Corden defended his role’s farcical fatphobia by claiming that Bustopher Jones revels in his size rather than being ashamed of it, it was still disappointing to watch Corden, one of the few male Hollywood celebrities who has denounced fat shaming, to play a role that clearly mocks, rather than celebrates, larger people (larger cats?)

Another of the film’s controversies stemmed from its questionable racial dynamics. Viewers of the film criticized the choice to cast Hayward, a principal ballerina with mixed English and Kenyan heritage, as a white cat. The makeup and visual effects obscured her natural skin tone, to the extent that it is impossible to tell that she is not white. Hayward defended her appearance in the film by saying that she is playing a white cat instead of a human, and that audiences should not read into it.

It is also notable that both of the undesirable cats, Grizabella and Macavity, are portrayed by actors who remain visibly Black in the film (Hudson and Elba, respectively). The racist bias in casting two of the only Black actors as a societal outcast and a fugitive criminal are obvious, and frankly, without excuse. Furthermore, the visibly Black Grizabella relies on a white savior, Old Deuteronomy, at the end of the film. The only other Black actor in “Cats”, Derulo, plays Rum Tum Tugger, whom Andrew Lloyd Webber reimagined as a “contemporary street cat” who has to “do hip hop” in 2014. While a role so clearly based on Black culture requires a Black actor to play the role, it is unfortunate that Rum Tum Tugger is the only non-undesirable cat who remains visibly Black in the film. It is dreadful and entirely inappropriate that even a film with no human characters forces some Black performers into highly antagonistic and racialized roles, while it whitewashes the only Black actor playing a role that is neither intrinsically racialized nor antagonistic.

Frankly, I can understand why “Cats” may be a sincerely delightful musical to watch live — it appeals to the entire family, and from clips I’ve watched on YouTube, the zany makeup, costumes, and atmosphere of the theater bring life to an otherwise questionable tale. In the live productions, the cats sing and introduce themselves directly to the human audience. The cats introducing themselves to the viewer is a special occasion, because they don’t often let humans into the intricacies of Jellicle life. It may feel like you’re being let in on a mysterious secret, a hidden world that exists in plain sight.

In the film, however, the cats merely introduce themselves to Victoria, the white cat, and they leave the viewer as a total outsider to the world. As I said before, the doe-eyed and naïve Victoria, unlike most of the Jellicle cats, is unremarkable. Most of the cats, although they do take the form of nightmarish, uncanny Lovecraftian creations in the film, have some fascinating quirk or personality. They are curious and talented cats who occupy their otherwise boring lives with the arts and occupations. Victoria isn’t a “Glamor Cat” or a “Railway Cat” or a “Curious Cat.” She’s just a white cat who has done absolutely nothing to earn her place within the Jellicle clan. It infuriated me when Old Deuteronomy allows her to join the Jellicle clan at the end of the film. She didn’t do anything except for let other cats introduce themselves to her for two hours! “White” is not a personality or an occupation!

Finally, I found myself frustrated at the film’s erasure of the musical’s overt sexuality. Whether we like it or not (and we definitely do not), “Cats” is an overtly sexual piece of musical theater. On stage, in “The Rum Tum Tugger,” the titular Rum Tum Tugger spends about eighty percent of the song thrusting his hips towards female cats as they swoon and grovel at his feet for his attention. The cats wear tight and revealing clothing, which, although slightly uncomfortable, well, you know, it is what it is. Furthermore, the musical contains pretty explicit romantic tension between Rum Tum Tugger and Mister Mistoffelees — after all, Rum Tum Tugger only wants what he can’t have, and Mister Mistoffelees is the only cat who isn’t completely in love with him. In the film, not only did the animators remove any whispering of revealing body contortions with CGI (notably, they digitally edited out Jason Derulo’s bulge), but they also completely obliterated the romantic tension between Rum Tum Tugger and Mister Mistoffelees by creating a forced romance between Victoria and Mister Mistoffellees.

There is simply no way that Mister Mistoffelees is straight, but someone with significant influence over the production had to have sat down one day and decided that they had to straightwash Mister Mistoffelees. I regret to report that straightwashing Mister Mistoffelees didn’t unhornify “Cats,” as the producers must have wanted it to, but instead, duly showed that the producers knew that “Cats” is an innately horny production, and instead of leaning into it, shied away. For Christ’s sake, the actors in the film had to go to “cat school” before filming, wherein they had to learn how to behave like cats. If the producers weren’t ashamed to force international treasure Ian McKellen to sniff his fellow actors for a role, why were they so ashamed to embrace the musical’s inextricable horniness? Cowardice is why. Hollywood is simply too afraid to make anything that truly pushes the boundaries anymore.

Humans singing and dancing around pretending to be cats, and the power of Hollywood money is perhaps not a winning combination — but it is certainly an entertaining one. Before I watched “Cats,” I lamented at the amount of untapped and underutilized talent in the film — after all, the film stars such prominent and worthy celebrities as Ian McKellen, Judi Dench, Taylor Swift, Idris Elba, and Jennifer Hudson. Andy Blankenbuehler, who won a Tony award for choreographing Hamilton, choreographed the film. I desperately wanted to know why Hollywood had spent so much time, money, effort, and talent producing a film that no one asked for, that audiences loved to hate as soon as the first trailer dropped.

For what it’s worth, despite my slander for the film, I enjoyed the film and I actually like the music. “Memory” is an absolutely gorgeous melody that has absolutely no business being in “Cats,” and Jennifer Hudson performed both of its iterations breathtakingly. If it had been in literally any other film, I might even have cried at the performance. Taylor Swift’s performance of “Macavity” was also surprisingly fun and lighthearted, and she, as opposed to most of the actors in the film, didn’t actively look and sound like she wanted to die. The songs left me singing “The Rum Tum Tugger is a curious cat,” and “And not long ago, this phenomenal cat [Mister Mistoffelees] produced seven kittens right out of a hat,” for several weeks after my original watching. I’m not proud to say that I’ve streamed “Macavity” on Spotify multiple times, and I’m disappointed that it’s taken so long for “Cats” to come out on streaming.

I also must note that since perhaps the release of “Avatar” in 2009, I feel that visual effects have largely lost their novelty since they now appear in most films. Movies with explosions and realistically animated mythical creatures no longer wow me with their artistic merit, because they’ve just become the new status quo of mainstream films. “Cats” refreshed me in that while it did employ heavy usage of CGI and visual effects, nearly every second of the film wowed me with the uniqueness of how the CGI seamlessly transformed the artistry of the film’s choreography and song — sometimes, even in a good way. While the film’s CGI did provide a means for the now-infamous scenes of Jennyanydots eating cockroaches and tearing off her outer layer of skin to reveal a costume underneath, it also created the nonsensical albeit aesthetically pleasing scenery, such as the neon lights on the streets of London and the chandelier-turned-hot-air-balloon in which Grizabella gets yeeted into the sun.

Retrospectively, I sincerely, genuinely, unironically don’t believe that there would have been a better use or project for such talent than “Cats”. Audiences are bound to be disappointed at any film that has such a breadth of talent, because there are very few films that sincerely live up to audiences’ expectations at large. But “Cats” fails marvelously in that its very existence sets the bar so low that not only do the celebrities live up to their reputations, but surpass them in the fact that “Cats” manages to not be the worst movie in existence. As someone who’s finally ready to admit that I paid money to watch “God’s Not Dead” in theaters, I can attest to the fact that there is a very big difference between “bad bad” and “fun bad” — and Cats very much falls into the latter category. The simultaneously smooth and furry texture of the cats’ coats, the inexcusable CGI, and the incomprehensible setting of the film are indubitably terrible, which makes them so fun to hate. 

As Simran Hans from The Guardian put it, “Cats” will “haunt viewers for generations.” I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. We, as human beings, love to punish ourselves. We love things that are just objectively terrible in every way. We love hating and fearing the harmless. Most of us have spent so long living without constant palpable danger in our lives that our fight-or-flight mechanisms have become defunct. They’re completely broken and useless, little more than an exotic novelty that reminds us of our nomadic roots and that we use to entertain ourselves. I once read a story about a man who was transported to a kingdom where humans had eternal life, and in that kingdom, the most popular beverages were poisons that gave people stomach pains and a few grey hairs because the luxury of eternal life became a punishment. They drank the poison, even because it hurt them, because they just wanted to feel something again. In the same way, in our contemporary United States, so many of our lives have become inundated with routine and stability that sometimes, we need to punish ourselves to feel something again. We have achieved eternal life, and “Cats” is the poison which hurts our stomachs and makes us feel something again. We drink it to feel something again — to feel anything, be it pleasure, disgust, or maybe some perverse combination of both, as was the case with “Cats.”

Nobody watched “Cats” to enjoy it — they watched it to punish themselves with the feeling of revulsion, and in the process, profit off of the artificially-induced adrenaline rush. “Cats” will haunt us as a species for generations, and we’ll love it. People don’t hate “Cats”; they love the idea of hating “Cats,” because that love for hatred gives them the little adrenaline rush that they need to make it through the rest of the day. It’s a collective experience that reminds us of our humanity.

Given that Disney has somewhat of a monopoly over films in theaters these days, it should come as no surprise that the overwhelming majority of films play it safe in order to pander to a complacent audience of Marvel- and Star-Wars-loving drones who want to sit in a dark theater for a few hours, watch a flavorless hero fight some generic bad guy for a couple of hours, go home to complain about it on Reddit, and inevitably watch the installment. Where’s the passion? Where’s the love for the craft of film? Where’s the originality? There is but one answer to all of these questions, and it’s that with movies like those in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the latest Star Wars trilogy, there is none.

“Cats,” on the other hand, took a chance and made a film that nobody asked for and nobody wanted to watch. In fact, Universal released “Cats” while “Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker” was still in theaters in order to serve as counterprogramming for young women. In the words of Jared Dunn, a character from HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” “What you did took incredible guts. The fact that it probably won’t make a difference makes it all the more meaningful. I saw this nature documentary where a bison fought a lion to protect the rest of the herd. And it was so moving. It didn’t work of course — the lion tore into the bison and laid waste to the herd. But what courage!” 

The bison is “Cats,” the lion is “Rise of Skywalker,” and the rest of the herd is films that aren’t the same bland, mushy stories repackaged into bite-sized, comfortable morsels multiple times a year by the same company. “Cats” sacrificed itself courageously and nobly for our sins (along with millions of dollars), and still we are none the wiser. Literally nobody asked it for any of this, and yet, it failed spectacularly. It failed spectacularly for us. As opposed to the aforementioned bland mush of forgettable films, “Cats” is teeming with personality. Of course, it’s an atrocious, putrid type of personality that can and will make viewers question their connection to reality itself, but it’s personality nonetheless.

It is better to suffer in hell with a wise man (“Cats”), after all, than to frolic in paradise with a fool (any contemporary blockbuster). 

Featured Image courtesy of wikipedia.org

Anatole Shukla

Anatole Shukla '22 is an Editor Emeritus of The Phoenix. He is from Fort Wayne, Indiana, and studied economics, linguistics, and Russian language while at Swarthmore.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

The Phoenix