By Myles McDonough
Spoiler Warning: Cats and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
Why do you go to the movies?
If it’s to see impressive set pieces and cool character designs, you probably left Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker overcome with joy. And with good reason: Creepy Exegol is one of the few planets in the Star Wars universe that doesn’t appear to be made out of sand, ice, or bogwater, and Ian McDiarmid is gorgeous as the revived Emperor Palpatine in all his red-eyed, intubated glory.
If, however, you like your movies to have basic storytelling devices like dramatic tension or character development — and if, like us, you happened to see Cats that same week — then you might have found yourself in a very awkward position.
Specifically, you may have discovered that you actually prefer Tom Hooper’s critically-panned feline musical to the latest iteration of Star Wars.
“Digital Fur Technology”
To get the obvious out of the way: Cats is a weird movie. Putting aside the strangeness of the source material — an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical based on “nonsense” poems by T. S. Elliott — the film includes some bizarre moments without which the universe might be better off.
For instance: Did we need to see James Corden, in full cat getup, land nuts-first on the rim of a London back-alley trash can? Was the world improved by the image of Rebel Wilson biting the head off a screaming, anthropomorphized cockroach?
Then, there are the various technical difficulties: faces that wander, jelly-like, over skulls; paws that are sometimes human hands; inconsistent use of shoes; and everything else the internet was so hot and bothered about last July.
The Rise of Skywalker is free of such amusing problems. The film’s CGI is solid, and J. J. Abrams wasn’t up the night before his premiere fixing errors.
But Cats has one thing that The Rise of Skywalker does not: a story.
“All for Nothing”
With the exception of General Hux — who reveals that he has been spying for the Rebellion purely out of spite for Kylo Ren — nobody in The Rise of Skywalker makes a single meaningful choice.
This isn’t the characters’ fault. The problem is: There are no real choices to be made.
One of the basic rules of storytelling is to introduce a conflict between what a hero wants and what they need. This inevitably creates compelling drama as characters (usually) become better versions of themselves. Both The Lion King and Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse, for example, feature protagonists who want to avoid conflict, but nevertheless need to accept responsibility for their own power. And thus, a character arc is born.
The Rise of Skywalker lacks dramatic tension because the characters’ wants and needs amount to the same thing. Members of the rebellion both want, and need, to not be exterminated by zombie Emperor Palpatine. Thus, basic self-preservation becomes the motivating force behind nearly all of the characters’ decisions (Ben Solo excluded).
But even calling these moments “decisions” is generous. Rather, our heroes encounter a dilemma and, after debating options for the heck of it, do the only thing that won’t lead to immediate collective suicide. And then the cycle begins again.
The film sums up this dynamic in one of its repeated mantras: “If [X happens], then it was all for nothing.” “It” being, at a minimum, the events of Episodes VII-IX, or arguably the entire nine-movie cycle.
C-3PO falls back on this point when he agrees to let his friends lobotomize him to access restricted Sith data in his memory banks. There is no real choice, here, beyond the most basic utilitarian calculus — everyone will die if he doesn’t submit to the memory wipe.
C-3PO wants to keep his friends alive and needs to keep his friends alive. So, our favorite golden robot goes slack, gazes off into the middle distance, and drones on about why he must die so the mission can succeed.
The events of The Rise of Skywalker don’t result from choices made by characters pursuing wants that are in interesting conflict with their deeper needs. Things happen in this movie because they have to. The legacy of the Star Wars canon demands it.
Choices, Jellicle and Otherwise
By contrast, most of what happens in Cats doesn’t have to happen at all (and, judging by critical response, many would prefer that it didn’t).
Cats is a movie about choice. The plot, such as it is, revolves around Old Deuteronomy’s “Jellicle Choice.” All of the Jellicle cats want to win a new life beyond the Heaviside Layer. In order to get it, they will have to win a contest by expressing themselves through song and dance at the Jellicle Ball, after which Old Deut will pick a favorite to ascend. While the original play is content to stop right there and exist as a feline Dancing with the Stars, the film provides more of a through-line by following the journey of Victoria, a stray cat who takes up with the Jellicles just before the contest begins.
What the cats want — a new life — is different from what they need. And that makes for interesting storytelling.
Mr. Mistoffelees wants to hide his true self behind spectacle, and so spends much of the movie bumbling around with cheap parlor tricks. But what he needs to become a truly magical cat — and advance the plot — is to let himself be vulnerable in front of his friends, by making a real effort to bring back Old Deuteronomy.
Victoria wants to become one of the Jellicle cats, and strains to win their approval — “to be wanted,” in the words of the new tune “Beautiful Ghosts.” What she needs to discover is that being a Jellicle is not about conforming to others’ expectations. It’s about being a unique individual, in community with other individuals.
Grizabella, for her part, desperately wants to win back her former status as the Glamour Cat. She’s been in exile after taking up with Macavity and engaging in whatever implied cat-prostitution and drug use that entailed. But the Jellicles, perhaps feeling abandoned, continue to punish her for these supposed transgressions with hisses and scowls.
Things can never be exactly the same as they once were, and Grizabella’s “days in the sun” live only in memory.
As Victoria makes clear in “Beautiful Ghosts,” the former Glamour Cat must dare to “follow [her] home.” To begin a new life, Grizabella needs to be seen — and embraced — for who she is now.
On paper, the protagonists of Cats and The Rise of Skywalker are both young orphans who find a sense of identity by joining a community. One of these films uses this setup to tell a compelling story. The other is the latest Star Wars sequel.
Rey takes up with the Rebels, a group whose ideology is… broad. They stand for “Good” stuff, like not committing genocide on a planetary scale. So, it’s pretty easy to align yourself with them. In fact, that’s the default stance for most sentient beings in this galaxy.
To quote The Rise of Skywalker’s other big refrain: “They [the First Order/Empire/Sith/etc] win by making you think you’re alone…There are more of us.”
Way more. As demonstrated by the film’s final showdown — in which a ragtag collection of ships forms a fleet to fight back against Palpatine. Anybody who isn’t vocally in support of outright evil can qualify as a Rebel.
The Rebellion isn’t a family that one chooses. It’s a headcount of all the halfway decent people in a given section of space who are willing to pilot a ship to Exegol. Rebels, and the Rebellion, are Good — and there is no need for them to grow or change, so long as they are fighting against all-consuming Badness.
By contrast, the chosen family Victoria finds in Cats has a whole lot of dysfunction to work through before the narrative can resolve itself.
The film opens with the toe-tapping “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats,” which at first glance is nothing more than a catchy, lighthearted ode to the tribe’s history, and the talents of the Jellicles themselves.
Looked at in light of the Jellicles’ subsequent treatment of Grizabella, however, the song reveals itself for what it is: a massive circle-jerk.
The song praises the community for how wonderful it is, despite the long-held grudge that drives them to regularly bully and shun their former friend. The “Jellicles can, and Jellicles do” everything — except forgive.
Naturally enough for a group obsessed with perfection in an afterlife, the Jellicles want to forget the ugliness in their collective past and ignore the cruelty and spite of their present behavior. But in order to become a loving, supportive family of misfits, the cats need to admit that they have unjustly hurt Grizabella, far more than she ever hurt them.
For the community to heal, its members must respond to Grizabella’s demand: “Touch me.” They need to learn to celebrate one another for who they really are, when they’re no longer performing. As Old Deut puts it, they must learn how to “judge a cat by its soul.”
Both films end with our protagonists taking on the mantle of their respective communities.
Rey buries Luke and Leia’s lightsabers in the sands of Tatooine, and reveals her new yellow blade. For a brief moment, there is hope — Rey is this close to becoming her own person. Then, a wandering peasant woman asks for her name, and Rey saddles herself with the dead weight of the Skywalker legacy.
Rey is every Jedi and no one in particular. She is not a Palpatine, and therefore not Bad. Nothing new has happened, and every conceivable image has been recycled. Comfy and profitable, the franchise rides off into the binary sunset.
Victoria, on the other hand, takes her place among the Jellicles — she decides to “dance with these beautiful ghosts” who have offered her “something to cling to” — that is, a sense of belonging. A family.
There are plenty of reasons not to hang around with the Jellicles. Even if the movie hadn’t been plagued by technical difficulties, the world it depicts would still be a weird and dangerous place, where cats survive on trash and face the constant threat of magical kidnapping and a hypersexualized Jason Derulo.
But the Jellicle way of life is one that the cats choose of their own free will, not something forced on them by history. As Victoria puts it, “I know that this life isn’t safe, but it’s wild and it’s free.”
And so is this strange movie musical documenting that life. Cats may not be everyone’s saucer of milk. But if nothing else, it is unbeholden to anyone or anything. That’s partly because nobody asked for it, but also partly because it sets out to tell a weird, flamboyant story about the challenges and rewards of finding your people — and, in its own way, it succeeds.
In the end, as you sit listening to Dame Judi Dench explain “The Ad-Dressing of the Cats,” you may not quite understand what happened over the last two hours. But like Grizabella, and the Jellicles who learn to welcome her home, you may have a better sense of “what happiness is.”