Tom Hooper’s Cats announced what kind of movie it was going to be when the first trailer dropped this summer. The first image of Jennifer Hudson looking like she’d downed a bad batch of polyjuice potion, giving a mournful rendition of “Memory,” said everything that needed to be said, if the original musical’s paper-thin plot hadn’t already tipped you off. This was never going to be a good movie. At best, it was going to be a weird movie. The only question was how weird.
The answer? Extremely weird. Cats is a movie constructed from many bad decisions (chief among them, adapting the notoriously plot-light musical in the first place). However, Hooper and his team commit so fully to every bad decision that the end result is pretty compelling, even fascinating. Through its commitment to eyebrow-raising creative choices, Cats has become something unlikely: 2019’s most interesting cult film.
The plot of Cats involves a tribe of cats called the Jellicles (the name comes from T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, from which the musical is adapted), who gather for an annual event called the Jellicle Ball. Victoria (Francesca Hayward) is a newcomer to the community, and serves as the audience surrogate as all of the various cats introduce themselves to her and describe their lives. At the Jellicle Ball, the leader of the cats, Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench), selects a cat who will travel to the Heavyside Layer, above the clouds, and be reborn. Various cats compete for the honor, including raggedy former beauty Grizabella (Hudson), but criminal feline Macavity (Idris Elba) is determined to win by any means possible.
Mostly, Cats is episodic, with a scene and a song focused on a single cat, followed by another scene doing the same, occasionally interspersed with an advancement of the story, such as it is. For a two-hour movie, however, that approach gets old fast, and it starts to dawn about 45 minutes in that we’ve been watching singing, dancing cats for quite a while, for no real reason. That, of course, is a problem rooted in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, but it’s also a pretty strong argument for not making Cats into a movie at all. Unless, perhaps, you’re just really into felines with odd, humanoid features.
Funnily enough, those odd, humanoid features are so off-putting and inconsistently designed that the characters actually become very interesting to watch. Trying to solve the puzzle of why each of these creatures looks so unpleasant, and what could be done to make it less so, is perhaps Cats’ most attractive quality. The faces — with the exception of Dench and Ian McKellen’s theatrical elder Gus — are uncanny-valley smooth. The cats have human feet, which are fur-covered, and human hands, which are not, and disrupt the illusion whenever you look at them. Some of the cats have press-on nails that look like claws, but not all of them (perhaps the acrylic budget ran out). Some of the cats wear shoes, but no other clothes. Sometimes the cats are so fully clothed that they look almost human, until you see their face. Other times, the nakedness of the actor beneath all that “digital fur technology” is apparent to a disturbing degree.
But despite all of these seemingly obvious issues (there’s a whole other discussion to be had about the film’s hilarious problems with scale), the performances in Cats occasionally break through and are legitimately good. McKellen, in particular, really gets into character as Gus, licking dishes of cream and meowing, fully aware of how ridiculous it looks, but not caring. He, Dench, and a few of the other actors don’t take things too seriously and just have fun with the roles. These are the moments in which Cats comes closest to working.
Cats is still a big, steaming mess, living up to the promise of its marketing campaign in every way. However, it’s a much more watchable mess than perhaps anybody was ready for. It still doesn’t work, but the ways in which it doesn’t work, and its commitment to trying anyway, are worth seeing at least once. Years from now, there will be late-night screenings of Cats, with pleasantly drunk moviegoers bellowing for milk alongside Jason Derulo’s Rum Tum Tugger and imitating Hudson’s melodramatic stylings.