A Cats Musical Diehard Fan Attempts To Autopsy Cats (2019)

sarah james
Jan 9 · 10 min read

Many, many reviews, which I shall not attempt to chronicle here, have panned Cats (2019)’s distressing horniness, the absurd “plot,” the incomprehensible human/cat hybrid-ness of it all.

This article is not that.

Taylor Swift in Cats (2019), Universal Pictures — Fair Use

I’ve been a fan of the musical Cats since I was twelve years old. (…We’ll get in to that later.) If you would like me to prove my Cats fandom credentials to you, I absolutely will not be linking to my old fanfiction but rest assured it exists. I was very active in the Cats fan community on our various sites, c. 2002–2004. I even (and this is the one I’m real embarrassed of) cosplayed as Bombalurina (that’s Taylor Swift, for those of you who don’t know the names of all the cats in Cats.) It involved dyeing a clown wig and painting a leotard and I will NOT be showing you pictures.

So, yeah, I’m on board for Cats. It’s absolutely ridiculous and I love it, and that’s not just teenage me saying so: I saw the stage show when it was on tour in Los Angeles last year. I went half-ironically, like “ha, guess I’ll see if this thing I was obsessed with in 2002 holds up?” and ended up having a great time. It’s a fun show that embraces its complete inanity. The dancing is legitimately awesome, the songs are catchy (for the most part), it’s a fun few hours that’s not trying to be something life-changing.

The weird fetish cats, the two hours or so of cats introducing themselves — I understand why people not familiar with the stage show are latching on to this in their reviews, but this is all in the stage show, and it works. So why is the movie so awful?

You have questions, and I (maybe) have answers. Let’s go.

It’s the digital fur technology, right? Hands-that-should-be-paws down, this is the worst thing about this movie?

Honestly, I don’t think the human/cat hybrid technology, ON ITS OWN, is that bad. HEAR ME OUT.

Maybe I’m too much of a theater kid, but I think you would adjust to watching human hands and feet on otherwise furry cat bodies. The problem is Tom Hooper keeps calling your attention to it, by doing things like having Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson) UNZIP HER OWN SKIN.

In the stage show, Jennyanydots does enter in kind of a schlubby coat that she then sheds for her tap number (given to Skimbleshanks in the movie, because: Rebel Wilson.) But the costuming in the stage show isn’t hyper-literal cat fur. In a way that works on stage, it’s more suggestive of a cat than an actual depiction of one, which is why it isn’t weird when some of the cats wear clothing on top of it. Nobody is meant to look like an actual cat, so you see a furry coat or a tuxedo jacket as suggesting a shaggy or a black and white cat.

I don’t disagree with what I assume Tom Hooper’s thinking was here: that theatrical representation doesn’t translate to the screen. Which, fine, have realistic cat fur. But you can’t have it both ways: you can’t have literal, realistic cats who also take off their outer layer of fur to reveal a second outfit underneath. It’s horrifying.

I suspect Tom Hooper’s reasoning was that this was a movie for children, and kids are dumb, and we don’t need to think about the logic of this because I am Tom Hooper and I made The King’s Speech, dammit.

Digital Fur Technology in Cats (2019), Universal Pictures — Fair Use

As an aside, I definitely thought this movie was an improvement from The King’s Speech.

Okay, so you don’t think the CGI is actually that bad, but those tails look horrible, huh?

Yes. The tails are stupid, and they ruin the dancing.

Dancing? I don’t remember seeing any dancing?

Yeah, that’s probably because Tom Hooper is bad at filming dance sequences. He is more interested in using choreography like the actors doing it are decorations— just backdrops to his artistic shot framing (close ups on an actor’s face.) In Victoria’s first solo, in the cemetery, she’s doing an incredible leg-lift thing (that’s the technical term, I took ballet for twelve years) and Tom Hooper just… cuts to a close-up of her face, weirdly from above, so we can get a good look at… Victoria’s inner thoughts, I guess…? The emotional state of a cat…?

(In my breakdown of the Cats trailer, I posted my theory of Victoria Watergate: Tom Hooper Got His First Boner To The White Cat in Cats and the movie… bears this out.)

And while I don’t want to suggest the inner thoughts and emotional of your main character aren’t important, the dancing is at least 85% of what makes Cats work onstage. It’s an incredibly physical show, and it’s genuinely exciting to watch these athletic, graceful dance numbers performed by talented people who are giving it their all.

Obviously some of that is already going to be lost in translation to film, which lacks that immediacy, that holy shit this is happening right now and I’m watching it that makes theater “my drug of choice” (kill me!)

But the CGI-ness, specifically the animated tails and the choice to use wires to achieve various cat jumps and leaps, makes it even less exciting. It makes entire dance numbers look like they are computer-generated. An athletic ballet becomes no more interesting to watch than the CGI background armies battling in the wide shots of Lord of the Rings.

And that doesn’t even begin to address what they did to Mistoffelees.

What did they do to Mistoffelees?

“Magical Mr. Mistoffelees” is the last big dance number in the stage show Cats, and it’s on one soloist, basically, to cap off this whole evening of dance. The number before has Skimbleshanks making an actual train out of junk onstage, and Mistoffelees has to outshine both that and the earlier ten-minute-long Jellicle Ball sequence that includes an actual onstage orgy! That’s not relevant to the point I’m making but I just want to remind people it’s a thing, and it happens! (It’s not in the movie, so sorry if I don’t buy your ‘disturbingly horny’ takes! It could be MUCH HORNIER.)

In the stage show, Mistoffelees descends from the ceiling in a light-up jacket and almost immediately starts blowing things up with his magical powers. It maybe takes him a try or two to get Old Deuteronomy back (spoiler alert!) but he does it pretty quickly, and the rest of the number is some seriously ridiculous jumping and spinning (again, technical ballet term) around the stage.

It’s a highlight of the show, it’s fun, it’s a celebration! Mistoffelees says “Presto!” a bunch and that’s hilarious! So of course this movie ruins it!

In Cats (2019) we get… four minutes of “let’s build up the confidence of a mediocre man, giving him opportunity after opportunity to succeed, even though it’s clear we should have long ago given up on him.” Gee, I wonder why Tom Hooper would be interested in a scene like that?

Interesting. Are there any other characters they ruined by turning their upbeat songs into dry, dull slogs?

WARNING: What follows is some history of Cats the stage show, that I just happen to have in my brain because I didn’t have a lot of friends growing up!

Mungojerrie and Rumpel/le teaz/ser (spelling often disputed) have plagued Cats since its opening. The original London production had a slow, sultry “cat burglary” ditty for them, but it was super bad and boring. For the original Broadway production, it was re-arranged into a much more up-beat and catchier tune, and given to Mr. Mistoffelees who is singing about two dolls which he brings to life through the power of magic.

But the planting of Mr. Mistoffelees’s magical abilities which would then later pay off in his own song in Act Two was apparently too much plot for Old ALW, so a few years into the Broadway run the song was re-tooled again, keeping the upbeat Mistoffelees arrangement but having Mungojerrie & Rumpelteazer sing the song themselves while performing a highly acrobatic number involving a lot of gymnastics. This version was finally successful, and has stuck around to this day.

Until Tom Hooper decided to go back to the boring original arrangement, the one that was re-written within a year.

Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer and Victoria in Cats (2019), Universal Pictures — Fair Use

I must confess, of all the baffling decisions made in the production of this movie, this is the one that I understand the least. I know. I know! Can’t change who I am, though.

Are Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer also working for Macavity in the stage show?

Nope! Although there was some debate among the fandom, because Mungojerrie is name-checked as an agent of Macavity in “Macavity.” (The movie also throws Rumpelteazer in there. Feminism!)

I guess the movie has them be bad guys in an attempt to inject more “plot” into the movie. But in the stage show they are part of the tribe, there for all the action.

Hmm. Are there any other cats that are more present in the stage show as members of the tribe but are cut back for the movie?

Yup. Pretty much all of them.

This is, I think, the biggest thing that is lost from stage to movie.

What follows is going to sound like some theater kid bullshit, but hell, you wouldn’t be 1500 words into this thing if you weren’t down for some theater kid bullshit. So here goes.

In the stage show, pretty much everyone is on stage all the time… and you start to get to know these characters. There’s always little interactions happening either in the songs (During “Rum Tum Tugger,” Bombalurina tries to hit on Tugger and he drops her to the ground) or in the background, off to the side. It’s fun to watch! This is what got me hooked on the show in the first place, what made me want to write fanfiction about it. You see just a hint of an interaction between two characters and you’re like “oh, there’s a story there.” And I wanted to write that story!

By the way, this is why movie audiences are baffled by something that never was a debate in the Cats fan community (which had plenty of debates): what is a Jellicle cat? Jellicle is just the name for this group of cats. Like how me and my high school friends called ourselves “The Posse” (oof.) It’s not anything deeper than that! But when cats seem to wander in and out and around with abandon and half of them appear to be solely CGI, it gets confusing.

On stage, some of the song cats are only on for their song, but often their song is not actually sung by them, so you are still seeing members of the tribe interact. The movie changes this… and is probably right to do so. You don’t cast Ian McKellen and then just have him sit there not saying anything while someone sings about how great Ian McKellen is.

But the result is to make the movie even more disjointed and episodic than the stage show is already prone to be. You don’t see the characters throughout each other’s songs, you don’t latch in to any sense that this a tribe or a group. The shots where it does happen are so jarring (Rum Tug DeRulo popping up to hit that high note in Magical Mr. Mistoffelees, Ian McKellen flipping his scarf when Old Deuteronomy arrives) that it almost calls more attention to the fact that we haven’t seen these characters for an hour.

Speaking of Ian McKellen’s scarf, is Ian McKellen wearing his own scarf as Gus the theater cat?

Yes. He is.

Left: Ian McKellen in “Ian McKellen On Stage,” Frederic Aranda — Fair Use, Right: Ian McKellen in Cats, Universal Pictures — Fair Use

I hear what you’re saying about the disjointed-ness, but was there really any other way? Taylor Swift isn’t going to be on set for every song just so you can see Bombalurina’s reaction to James Corden landing a nice fart. She’s Taylor Swift!

I know.

And the promise of stunt-casting celebrities in those one-off cat roles was surely one of the only reasons this movie got green-lit in the first place, right?

Probably, yeah.

So what are you saying? That Cats simply can’t be made as a movie, that it only works as a stage show, that it was foolish to try?

Yes.

Well, let’s downgrade that to “possibly, maybe.” Because there are parts of this movie, that — stupidly and against all odds — work. I think the Skimbleshanks number is legitimately great. Ian McKellen makes what is by far the most skippable song on the soundtrack charming. I’m here for the Jason DeRulo pivot to musical theater.

But it needs a director who can actually film a dance sequence, and also someone who can resist the urge to take every song super literally.

Like, when Grizabella sings “the withered leaves collect at my feet,” that’s about atmosphere. She feels alone, stuck, surrounded by only cold and decay. She doesn’t need to be literally lying in a pile of withered leaves.

If I could boil this 2,000 words down to one sentence, it would probably be that Tom Hooper lacked both the imagination and the technical capability to pull this film off.

Anything else?

There’s so much else. I could see this movie five thousand more times. I could write a book on this movie. But I have an Actual book to write, so I have to wrap this up.

Before we go, you mentioned you wrote Cats fanfic. What was the ship?

Mistoffelees/Tugger. Genre: Angst.

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sarah james

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sarah is an editor at slackjaw. her writing has appeared in reductress, splitsider, the toast, and more. thesarahjames.com

The Culture Corner

All things pop culture.

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