Well, it’s here, the year’s most unbelievable movie. “Cats” slinks into theaters this weekend following months of snarky tweets and startling production logistics. One of the longest-running Broadway shows in history, the thinly plotted musical about felines pining for a sort of surrealist reincarnation isn’t an obvious choice for a live-action film treatment, with its curious history and hard-to-capture premise. But the trailers made it look so bonkers that Tom Hooper’s big-screen rendition gained immediate must-see status.
Four HuffPost reporters saw “Cats” earlier this week, and not one of them could believe what Hooper and his crew came up with. Maybe not for the reason you think, though. Let’s discuss.
The Bottom Line
“Cats” is so singular it almost can’t be judged. And yet seeing it leaves no option but to be very judgmental.
Leigh Blickley: We all saw “Cats” this week, and what an experience it was. Being a theater nerd myself, I know all about jellicle cats and the jellicle ball and the jellicle moon and, ummm, heaven? I lost my mind when the news first hit that Tom Hooper ― director of Oscar-winning films like “The King’s Speech,” “Les Misérables” and “The Danish Girl” ― would attempt to adapt the musical into a modern-day film using CGI technology never seen before on screen. He’d set out to turn famous actors like Judi Dench, Ian McKellen and Idris Elba into ... well ... CATS, and all of it seemed utterly exciting. The idea of Taylor Swift and Jason Derulo and James Corden and Rebel Wilson attending “cat school” made me think this was going to be the movie musical for the ages! And I’m here to report that the end product is surely like nothing I’ve ever seen before.
Bill Bradley: Leigh, unlike you, I had no real idea what “Cats” was going into it, and after watching it, I can honestly say I still don’t. I’m also afraid to ask for fear someone’s going to break into a long nonsensical cat-themed song to try to explain. When one cat asked, “Who’s Old Deuteronomy?” I was like, “Nooooo! Why’d you ask that? They’re going to sing about it now!” And then, yeah, they sang about it.
Matthew Jacobs: This is the movie the keeps on giving, at least in theory. We get digital fur, Taylor Swift as a tabby jiggling her humanlike boobs and a character who somehow unzips herself from a full-body pelt to reveal she is wearing clothes underneath. Like Bill, I had no connection to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage musical, aside from the bizarre fact that it’s based on T.S. Eliot poems. What seems to have worked as a kooky wink for a theater audience is now, well, anything but. Hooper is far too self-serious a director to have fun with this material. It’s boring! Spiritless! Toneless! Barely a movie! Maybe that makes it worth loving ― or worth smoking a joint and seeing with friends ― because it is a fairly bananas thing to say about a star-studded $95 million Hollywood production, but yikes.
Erin Evans: I usually can find some fun in a bad movie. But this was just bad. I was confused the whole time. I think the first thing out of my mouth after seeing it was, “What even is a jellicle cat anyway?” I’m blaming this all on T.S. Eliot. I’ll save my ire for a few of these performances and looks for later in this chat.
About That CGI...
LB: About that $95 million production budget: Was it well-utilized? I feel like the actors could’ve just worn cat suits, like the stage performers do, and nothing would’ve changed? If you’re going to go CGI with it, make it fun! Make it weirder, wackier, nonsensical. Don’t just experiment with ambitious technology to say you experimented with it. And don’t make “The Big Comfy Couch”-sized set pieces if you’re not going to get the aspect ratio right.
MJ: Right. Hooper supersizes the sets to make these cats seem more like the size of actual cats, but it doesn’t work. They still look like humans, which isn’t helped by their literal human hands. Did the “digital fur technology” stop working when it came time to do the paws?
BB: The CGI kind of had “Scorpion King”-meets-FaceInHole vibes. By CGIing the cat bodies over the actual dancers, it all comes off looking a bit like a cartoon. Then you add in real human faces on top of that, and it’s like Taylor Swift made a feature-length cat-themed Elf Yourself for all her celebrity friends, and then they were like, “Hey, let’s release this in theaters.”
EE: I couldn’t even look at their paws because I didn’t know what was happening in the plot. The worst part of the movie was Idris Elba’s CGI catsuit. He has never not been the finest man alive, but his feline lewk was a tragedy. It just looked like his actual skin was a catsuit — and then his head was just floating around in there between cat ears. Never have I ever wanted him to put his clothes back on.
MJ: Elba’s getup was definitely the most awkward, as if his face had been transplanted onto someone else’s body or something. The movie relies on the actors to bring energy where the lifeless sets can’t, so tasking them with performing in green-screen suits so they can be computerized in postproduction was a losing battle. And having almost no humans around gives the whole thing an apocalyptic feel, which is nowhere near as fun and ominous as it sounds. It just seems undercooked.
LB: The only actor who apparently paid attention in cat school was Ian McKellen, who truly embraced the zany concept of humans licking and scratching themselves like only felines could. He drinks milk from a bowl! He rubs his body against a pole! Coming from the “Lord of the Rings” school of Andy Serkis, he knew he had this whole motion-capture task in the bag. And his performance of Gus the theater cat is touching, correlating to his own experience as a beloved, aging actor in Hollywood, I’m sure.
BB: Ian McKellen was the cat’s pajamas. I also think this is the purrfect movie for Jason Derulo since it’s all about singing about your own name. But the performance that stood out most to me was the human lady who throws out the cat at the beginning of the film. Because at first I was like, “Wow, this person is garbage.” But after seeing she was actually throwing out a creepy human/cat hybrid that won’t stop singing bizarre songs, I thought, “Hmm, maybe she has a point.”
EE: Also, if these were real cats, why was she throwing out a cat like that?!?! WHERE IS PETA? There were two semi-memorable performances for me, one of them for a not-great reason. I thought Les Twins’ dance number was excellently executed. And then Jennifer Hudson singing that “Memory” song made me think of her epic moment in “Dreamgirls,” singing “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” I think she was trying to give us the essence of that, but all I could think about was that terrible limp she had through the whole movie and that she’d been ostracized from the Cool Cat Crew for ... who knows what reason? Had she lived her nine lives already? She seemed like the old lady at the club. It didn’t land for me. Sorry, J-Hud.
MJ: Yeah, the problem with Jennifer Hudson’s character, Grizabella, is that she isn’t really a character. When Hudson finally gets her moment at the film’s end ― and I don’t just mean the famous ballad “Memory,” performed in snotty-nosed closeup ― it’s hard to feel much of anything because we know so little about her, yet the whole finale hinges on her redemption. The movie is full of these strange plot hiccups. That aside, it’s easy to divide the quality between the professionals (Ian McKellen, Judi Dench, Taylor Swift in music-video mode) and everyone else. What surprised me, though, is that Jason Derulo is kind of good as rowdy Rum Tum Tugger? And Laurie Davidson, the stud who played William Shakespeare in that short-lived TNT series, is doing an OK Robert Pattinson impression as magical Mr. Mistoffelees.
EE: True, justice for Jason Derulo! I laughed at him in the trailer, but he really was great.
LB: I was into Mr. Mistoffelees, for sure. As for J-Hud, she was acting her face off, boogers and tears and cat-eye makeup sliding down her face as she reached the apex of “Memory”: “TOUCH ME! IT’S SO EASY TO LEAVE ME! ALL ALONE WITH THE MEMORY OF MY DAYS IN THE SUN.” Little did she know this musical wouldn’t even get a Golden Globe nomination for best musical or comedy film, even though it’s, like, one of the only movie musicals to be released this year.
Scary Moments — Yes, There Were A Few
EE: Sorry to pile on Jennifer Hudson, but there’s a moment when she like peeks into the Jellicle Jam and hobbles into a corner that really disturbed me.
LB: Most of her “peeking in from the doorway” moments are cringey. But not as cringey as Judi Dench directly addressing the camera in the final act.
MJ: That’s my cue. Dench sings the very, very, very long closing number, “Finale: The Ad-Dressing of Cats,” directly to the audience. That’s right, she is addressing the cats but looking at us. And it goes on forever. With every new verse, the audience at my screening laughed harder.
BB: I was scared the entire time. Jellicle cats are nightmare fuel.
So, Should You Watch It?
LB: Curiosity killed the cat? Go see it. Bring tons of libations.
BB: Missing this would be a cat-astrophe.
MJ: I cannot in good faith advise you to see this, but I also cannot accept a world in which you don’t.
EE: Y’all are really telling people to see this? LMAO. In the words of “American Idol” judge Randy Jackson, it’s a no for me, dawg.