I would like to make it clear that I do truly believe every single film is worth something. No film is inherently good or bad, they are all unique expressions of an idea. Many people have said that Cats (2019) is “a disaster”, “a trainwreck” or “the worst thing to happen to cats since dogs” (The Telegraph, Gizmodo, and The Beat respectively). Here’s the issue I have with those negative reviews- it doesn’t matter what you say because it is so fascinatingly hilarious to watch. None of the reviews I have found seem to mention this or any of the good aspects of Cats (2019). The CGI, for its faults, is really good and the sets are genuinely spectacular. They didn’t attempt to modernise any of the songs, leaving them relatively untouched, and casting, for the most part, was done really well. I enjoyed watching this film, as did many other people who won’t so readily admit it, and in the end that is all that matters.
With that being said, Cats (2019) did a lot of things that utterly baffled me. I’ve already told you how good the CGI was, but the design chosen for the cats themselves is not. They’re humans with cat fur including human hands, faces, and feet which occasionally remain skin coloured or, in the case of faces, don’t 100% line up with the rest of the head. On top of this, a pair of cats played by Les Twins are wearing trainers but only on their hind feet. If you’re going to have any of your cats wearing shoes, why wouldn’t you put them on all 4 feet? If it’s because it would have looked weird on photo-realistic cat people, then maybe you should have gone with designs more akin to the original Broadway show. Alternatively, if you’re going to just CG the majority of your film you may as well just make it an animated film. Even with the remaining issues, at least the film would have been cute to look at. A final note on the design may seem small but is actually rather important and that is that they have collars. The Jellicle Cats are a bunch of strays, so it’s an odd choice. Lastly, as a side note to readers, if you don’t like the design of the cats you’re really not going to like the mice and cockroaches.
If, at this point, you are not aware of the plot to the hit Broadway musical Cats, don’t worry because there isn’t one. Each cat introduces themselves in the hopes of winning a new life as the “Jellicle Choice.” The words to each song were written by poet TS Elliot in his 1939 book Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats while the music was composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber in 1980. It is literally a collection of songs about cats with no plot. Cats (2019) opted not to follow this tried and tested simplicity, instead adding a menagerie of plot elements that somehow make the film make less sense. This is especially impressive when you consider that the film spells everything out for you. The main character, Victoria, is forever asking what is happening despite the songs literally explaining everything. This raises a further bizarre choice- the dialogue. The original production of Cats is a completely dialogue-free musical, but not this iteration. If it was adding to the film, that would be one thing, but it’s explaining the songs and giving us really bad cat puns. They are literally unnecessary. Furthermore, they made Macavity the villain of the piece. In the original show, he’s a mystery cat who hides in the shadows but he isn’t evil, he’s just another one of the cats. His goal here is to be the only Jellicle Choice by making the other cats disappear with magic. Yes, there’s magic and no it’s never explained. He even has his very own henchman (henchcat?) in the form of Growltiger who doesn’t get to sing his song. Of course magic, in a metaphorical sense, has always existed in Cats with Mr Mistofolees. He’s the kind of cat who’s always taking your stuff and leaving it in weird places to be found a week later. Here, they give him actual magic but they make him bad at it, which is the complete opposite of his character. Possibly the weirdest choice is Rebel Wilson as Jennyanydots. She’s one of those old cats who just lie around the house, but not here. She also wears a second layer of cat fur over her first lair and they make that a plot point.
Thus far, these have all been bizarre choices, but I wouldn’t necessarily call them awful. It makes for a unique version of the beloved musical. At this point I’d like to address the one part of any musical that survives all versions- the music. I say it survives all versions but actually Cats (2019) cuts out a couple of songs. If you were looking forward to Growltiger’s Last Stand or The Ballad of Billy McCaw I’m afraid you’ll be sorely disappointed. Ironically, if these had been left in, instead of replacing them with dialogue, the film would have been the same length, if not shorter. Don’t worry, they replace it with a new song for Victoria called Beautiful Ghosts which isn’t that memorable and was probably only added so they could win the Oscar for Best Original Song. It’s this song that plays over the end credits instead of the overture or any actual Cats songs. Fun Fact: Having made it through the film, it was THIS that drove me over the edge. Macavity’s song remains completely intact and has the added bonus of being sung by beloved pop icon Taylor Swift. Unfortunately they left in the line about him being ginger, which he most definitely isn’t in this iteration. Your character description is literally right there in the lyrics, it can’t be that hard to get it right. The Jellicle Ball also sees the cats being described as “small” and “of moderate size” which unfortunately is not the case. Actually, sometimes it is but you wouldn’t know because the scale of this film is all over the place. They go from being the size of mice to the size of human children, which isn’t helped by having an actual person in your opening scene. It also ruins the suspension of disbelief in terms of cat design because it reminds us what a human looks like. Any real issues I have with this film lie in the following section which I’ve dubbed Those Darn Heteros.
Old Deuteronomy has always been portrayed by a male, but here they cast Dame Judi Dench, who is definitely not that. I’m not doubting Dame Judi’s performance, but it seems to have been done so she can share “A Thing” with Asparagus the Theatre Cat played by gay legend Sir Ian Mckellan. You could have kept this element while keeping Old Deuteronomy male and it would have been SO IMPORTANT. Instead we have to endure this and a forced romance between Mr Mistofolees and Victoria. Romance in Cats is nothing new, there is a cat orgy after all, but these two have barely any chemistry. On top of this, they appear to have tried making Victoria as sexy as possible, despite the fact she is a kitten. Sexualising cats is one thing but sexualising a kitten is just gross. Finally, it seems they couldn’t resist a “man in woman’s clothing” joke when Mr Mistofolees rescues Victoria from a bedroom. There’s nothing funny about a man in a dress but society seems to have decided there is. Perhaps it’s because woman are seen as inferior to men so a man in woman’s clothing is immediately a lesser person for it. Best case scenario is that it’s sexist, worst case scenario is that someone smacks you because it’s sexist. You’re also buying into the capitalist idea that clothing can be gendered, which is ridiculous.
Before I conclude this piece, I would like to mention two minor details that threw me for a loop. First is the use of catnip which leads to the infamous “cat orgy” scene. There’s no real issue with it, I just think it’s odd to have it as a vital plot point. Then there are the building names. Cats has always been set in London, with street names from there being used consistently. The most prolific example is in Bustopher Jones: Cat About Town which tells us all the buildings he frequents. So why, oh why, would you deem it necessary to rename every single building with a cat pun? Honestly, this might be my biggest issue with Cats (2019) along with the shoes.
Cats (2019) was promoted as a “musical phenomenon” and that is entirely correct. This is a film that you have to see. It is an absurd conundrum of a film that words cannot explain. I will not call it bad because a film being good or bad is personal opinion. It’s important to not just judge the CGI, plot or dialogue but on the experience you had while watching it. Instead of asking if a film is good, instead try asking how it made you feel. That is what will determine this films legacy- did it entertain you? Will you watch it again? You may watch it to laugh or to revel in its absurdity but at the end of the day, you will still be watching it. Personally, this was one of the most unique and entertaining viewing experiences of my life. It is a heck of a thing.
Until Next Time…