Cats, The State of the Movie Musical, and the End of the F*cking World

Movies exist in a quantum space where bad movies can be good (anything John Waters or any teen rom-com from the 80s), good movies can be bad (Marvel, Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan, really any movie made by an “auteur”). Between those are average movies, which will rot into the deepest pit of fire. There are good movies which are just so good that they bend what it means to be a film. There are movies made for fun, with a couple of people making it just for the laughs with very little budget.

Cats (2019) is none of these.

It’s the summer of 2020. As I sit around waiting in a Discord call with some of my friends, we anticipate what the movie based on the ‘hit’ musical will be like to experience. Of course, we are familiar with the memes about the ballooned budget, the failed CGI, and the questionable performances, but this is a movie we are determined to see for ourselves (with our favorite drinks to keep us company, of course). We sit through two and half hours of reality-bending moving images with one connecting question in our head: Why?

Between the infamous Tom Hooper close-ups and the backgrounds becoming more surreal as the movie goes on, I lose all feeling in what reality is. Why do the cats live in the human world but have an anatomically correct milk bar? Why does Idris Elba say, “Macavity!” as if to remind everyone of his name/how evil he is? Why is Ian McKellen in the movie when he cannot sing (though this is not the first time the movie-musical has employed actors who cannot sing: see Marlon Brando in Guys and Dolls, Gerard Butler in Phantom of the Opera, Russell Crowe in Tom Hopper’s Les Misérables—the list goes on)?

I can’t begin to explain the ‘plot’ of this movie, but the basic premise is a group of cats competing to see which one will die. That’s the prize! The movie takes time to go through each dance sequence/song for every cat. There is the Taylor Swift song, which was created to make a run for the Best Original Song category at the Oscars (since a new song is the only one which can be up for contention). The song is a weak and pained sigh coming from Swift’s lungs with very little breath behind it: it comes and goes, and every time I am reminded of its existence, I wish for it to be gone.

Jason Derulo hams his performance as the Rum Tug Tugger, and though I will say he was perfect for the role, the rest of the cast and direction seem to limit his potential as the horny cat (yes, I just said this sentence). Judy Dench exists in the movie, I guess? I mean, I would rather forget her, but the movie makes it a point to focus on her. The last like five minutes are dedicated to her speak-singing—love her, but again, why? Why involve her in a film that seems to have no interest in experimenting but chooses to double down on a close up of her face for the final scene? Jennifer Hudson is wasted talent in this movie she was too good to be in, but the people involved in casting knew what they were doing when they cast her to sing “Memory”. And poor Idris Elba. He deserves so much more than what this movie gave him.

Everyone else is a fever dream. Between cats who play with pearls to the presence of ants, this movie dips into surrealism by accident in a way that makes viewers uncomfortable and scared. I am scared reliving the scene with Rebel Wilson. I still have nightmares picturing what she did to those ants. And her taking off her cat skin to reveal a costume underneath? Horrifying. Is my skin just a cloak hiding my secret costume change? Am I in a musical now? Waiting for the very moment the main character walks in and then quickly changing against my will, forced to perform a tap number furthering the spectacle and the character arc of the person whom my life now serves?

The various questions I am left with cannot be understood through lenses which dissect the contents of the movie, but instead through Hollywood’s obsession with star-studded musical adaptations of stage hits. This trend is an old-standing Hollywood tradition which was revived in the early 2000s with the smash hit Chicago. Since then, Hollywood has attempted to capture lightning in a bottle twice and failed to have a steady stream of hit, award winning musical adaptations like they wanted. Cats (2019) was emblematic of this issue with Tom Hooper at helm, various celebrities who cashed in a paycheck for this musical behind him, and an overall sense of blandness throughout. Cats failed to be interesting or capture what made the original stage musical special in the first place, with (usually) no big-name actors and a heavy emphasis on dancer-singers rather than star vehicles. I wonder if Jason Derulo getting his way with his request would have saved this musical.

Of course, I fail to mention this movie’s one saving grace. Cats commits sin after sin with one exception: Skimbleshanks, the railway cat. Skimbleshanks comes down from an opening of paradise and decides to bless us with his fantastic film sequence. The musical number feels alive. His scenes transport the audience through the theater with a tap number, then the camera moves to a railway, and onto a train with the charm and glee of little child skipping home from the candy store. Skimbleshanks makes me believe in humanity again. I now wake up and thank Skimbleshanks for his grace. I eat, breathe, live Skimbleshanks. I wear tap shoes to honor Skimbleshanks. I look in the mirror in my Skimbleshanks outfit and brush off the notion of me turning into a furry because either way, I am closer to our savior Skimbleshanks. I urge you, dear reader, to go look up this sequence and witness the glory of Skimbleshanks, the railway cat.

But not even the glory of Skimbleshanks can carry the rest of the movie’s run time. The question remains: How is Cats (2019) related to the state of the world? Can a movie so terrible impact how we view the world? The answer is yes. Cats is a terrible movie, and if it had been great, perhaps people would have something to find solace in while the world changes around them. Unfortunately, Hollywood robs us of this comfort for the awards and money. The joke is on them, however, as the movie flopped and only did well at the Razzies. Maybe one day we can forget this movie exists and be able to live free of the binding trance it spells. Bad cinema is a gateway towards bad living, or maybe its reflection. Either way, Hollywood is dead and Cats foreshadows the husk that mainstream movies will become in the near future. I, personally, have lost faith in the movie-musical and I do not know if I will waste my time with other adaptations after this one. If you would like the experience of this musical while retaining some of the glory of the stage, please just rent the filmed stage musical. It’s quite good!

A more lengthy discussion about the movie’s place within the history of the movie musical can be found here, in Lindsay Ellis’s video, which describes the movie’s existence in detail: (external link).

Poet, artist, singer, and long time fan of Pokemon and animation, Kenneth Michael Noguera is a Queer writer born and raised in Miami, Florida by his beloved mother and grandmother. His family comes from the island of Aruba and the Caribbean with his poetry focusing on masculinity, displacement, queerness, multi-generational trauma, and spirituality. He is an MFA Creative Writing student at the University of Central Florida. He is currently working on his first a book of poems. He is also an audio editor for Working Title Podcast. He lives in Orlando, Florida with his family and pets.

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