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Consumed With Hate: Cats

🙀 Yeah, Everybody Wants To Pass As Cats...

The Crime: Cats
The Guilty Party: Tom Hooper
Overview: Nothing short of an unmitigated disaster

Why I Hate It...

Cards on the table here: I was never going to like this movie. I'm lukewarm on musicals to begin with, and I've seen Cats, the stage show, and I didn't like it at all. Hell, I'm not overly fond of cats, the animal. But just because I'm not in the target audience, that doesn't mean a target audience doesn't exist, or that I can't appreciate a thing for what it is instead of what I want it to be. And yet this movie failed, on just about every level, to connect with anyone but the most blasted-out-of-their-minds-on-hallucinogens movie-goers. Now I'm not going to go into a laundry list of everything bad about this movie. I would instead point you to Lindsay Ellis's delightful video post mortem. Rather, I am fascinated by how this movie ever came to be in the first place, because it was destined to only ever be a complete train-wreck. I'd love to believe that in an alternate universe this movie is regarded as an odd mediocrity or even a maligned gem, but I don't know how that could ever happen. It had too many things working against it to ever succeed.

Consider the source material. Despite being one of the longest running shows on Broadway, Cats is not a particularly good show or even very representative of Broadway musicals. It has no story, just a bunch of character introductions interrupted briefly by a battle against roaches. It has spectacle and a couple of good musical numbers, notably the 11:00 ballad Memory. But Broadway lovers weren't keeping that thing going so much as tourists and very niche communities of... look, I'm not here to kink-shame, but there's a very specific audience for entertainment that features people dressed as animals and Cats leans into that by being... how to put this delicately... horny as f**k.

Turning a play with no story into a movie is no easy task to start with, but turning this play into a movie is a fool's errand at best due entirely to differences in medium. A stage show is not a movie. Live-action films tend towards some degree of realism. It's frequently hyper-realism or stylized realism, but at the end of the day we're looking at images of real people interacting with each other and with real objects, and our brains want what we see on screen to at least give the appearance of verisimilitude. But we engage with theatre differently. Because you are in the room with these people, you are more imminently aware of how artificial it is, and you have to be willing to set that aside. Movie-goers engage by suspending disbelief, but theatre-goers engage by actively playing along with the ruse--to the extent at the end of Hamilton we're tracking the position of an imaginary bullet by watching a member of the chorus mime moving it across the stage! And let me be very clear that this is not a criticism of the medium, just an observation that the two things work differently in our brains.

Cats, the stage show, takes full advantage. You have an entire cast dressed in fur and lycra pretending to be animals amid a cartoony set that skews perspective. At no point in any performance has anyone in the audience looked up there at the singing biped and thought they were looking at an actual cat--and that's fine! But! It's about as far removed from any kind of realism as you can get. So why on god's green earth would anyone think you could make that into a live-action film?

The answer is about as cynical as you can imagine. The 2012 film adaptation Les Misérables was a smashing success, thanks to powerhouse performances from Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway. So Universal Pictures hired the director of that movie and paired him up one of the longest-running shows on Broadway and just assumed dollar signs would fall into place. And I guess no one at any point stopped to ask how a human in a cat outfit was supposed to play on film. Like... if you made this into a cartoon, that would be something--but you can't do that because in America cartoons are for children and Cats, it bears repeating, is horny as f**k. So instead they decided to try and make it into a real movie directed by Tom Hooper, who does not make movies with tons of visual effects and who--hot take here--is not good at directing musicals.

His one musical, Les Misérables, is not a good movie. It has those two stellar performances, and that distracts us from all the things that don't work, such as: the awkward staging, the bizarro set design (note the two coffins right in the middle of the barricade because one would be too subtle), the hideous costuming, that pathetic new song that was added just for Oscar consideration, Russell Crowe's entire performance... It's a bad musical. You can't see any of the dancing because of how it's shot. Stunt-casting Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the Thénardiers is dumb and I hate it. It is completely lacking in nuance; every single scene just swings for the fences. It is gritty melodrama that thinks it's art, but none of that matters because suddenly Anne Hathaway goes through the five stages of grief while belting out I Dreamed a Dream and every human being with a soul is sobbing like a wounded child. It's the one thing in that film that Tom Hooper got unequivocally right, and that was enough.

But Cats is just a different animal (ahem), and Hooper--who won his directing Oscar for The King's Speech, an intimate buddy comedy about trauma and class--is a bad fit for the material. And again, this should have been obvious at many points during pre-production. Anyone should have been looking at the dailies and saying "I have questions." But apparently it wasn't until the first trailer dropped and audiences wigged out that Universal realized they had a complete turd on their hands and punted. They didn't even try to take corrective measures--no re-shoots, no character re-designs in post, none of it. They just flat out gave up.

Now, normally when a studio has a turkey in the oven, they cut their losses and finish it as cheaply as possible. This means skimping on effects and slashing the runtime down to the bone so there's less post-production costs and they can fit in more showtimes to try and squeeze a little more money out of it. But that's not easy to do with a musical. You can't just shave a few seconds out of the middle of a song. So instead, they just didn't finish it. The movie is riddled with unfinished effects, which just nudges it even more into the uncanny valley from whence it came.

And the result is almost entirely unwatchable. I say almost. Ian McCellan is fun to watch, and Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat is a pretty good musical number. The rest of it is hot garbage, though. Ugly, surreal, disjointed, it's an assault on the brain. Reportedly, Andrew Lloyd Webber hated it so much that it prompted him to buy his first dog.

Next week we look at Tom Clancy's lackluster attempted take-down of Britain's National Health Service, Red Rabbit...

In CONSUMED WITH HATE, Kurt is revisiting media that he absolutely did not like one bit. See more posts.