You have to hand it to the internet’s hivemind: Sometimes we get it right. It was practically virtuosic, the accuracy with which Tom Hooper’s cinematic version of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Cats was clocked upon the release of a behind-the-scenes teaser of it in July. Nailed it. Dead on. Haven’t seen such a good call made since the trailer for Roland Emmerich’s eventual bomb Stonewall cratered upon arrival. As with that embarrassment of a movie, the Cats mocking turns out to be entirely justified. The extent of the travesty at hand was immediately absorbed and expressed. This much is clear after sitting through all 110 minutes of the thing, wishing I could wriggle out of my seat in the movie theater like an actual cat does from the arms of its overbearing owner.
From my conversations and correspondence with members of various Cats stage actors of the past 40 years, I’ve come to believe that what makes or breaks Cats is the energy that fuels it. Several people who performed in the show compared it to a rock concert. The experience is intended to blow people away. It’s so anti-cerebral that it barely bothers with a plot. Strung together from old T. S. Eliot poems, the threadbare storyline gathers a bunch of cat characters to audition to ascend to a new life on the Heaviside Layer, as determined by a feline god figure, Old Deuteronomy (here played by Judi Dench with enough gravitas to make serenity read as absurdity). The show is the human theatrical equivalent of one of those two-hour YouTube videos of birds taking off, landing, and hopping around that’s specifically created to mesmerize actual cats. You just turn off your brain and marvel. A properly enthusiastic, athletic company in front of you makes doing so easy and joyous.
But oddly, given all the CGI and all the lighting (hues of pink regularly bathe the characters, the apparent strays of Euphoria), this movie version of Cats is far from electric. So little of it works that it’s hard to finger a primary culprit, but what consistently underwhelmed me were the tinny arrangements of songs that were clearly meant to blare so loud as to drown out the voices in your head claiming to know better than to allow you to give yourself over to a full-length musical about anthropomorphized cats. I feared the fault was on the theater in which this movie was screened for critics until the show-stopping number “Memory” finally delivered bombast at its climax. In my estimation, the entire film’s sound design has been toned down so that you finally feel it in your back teeth when Jennifer Hudson wails, “TOUCH MEEEEEEEEE.”
She needs all the help she can get. She plays outcast Grizabella with such sniveling pathos, it’s as if she had no sense of how cartoonish this entire affair, featuring actors overlaid with digital cat features, would come off by design. Jason Derulo practically mumbles through “Rum Tum Tugger.” Rebel Wilson and James Corden simply will not be contained by the ears and fur and turn in particularly charmless versions of roles they’ve already played, or perhaps themselves. Clearly no one bothered to internalize “felinity” (the process the stage actors went through to “learn to embody cat characteristics, mindsets, body language, and personalities, [which] helps transform your performance from being a human who is ‘catlike’ to fully believing that you are in fact a cat,” according to Shonica Gooden of the 2016 Cats Broadway revival). It’s so odd. For a movie that’s always doing something—Oh look, we’re in a giant bedroom. Oh look, here’s a Busby Berkley-esque, shot-from-above number featuring dancing cockroaches. Oh look, there’s Taylor Swift strutting like she’s at an America’s Next Top Model audition. Oh look, we’re on a railway. Oh look, now it’s a barge in the middle of the Thames with a bunch of cats that are being kidnapped through magic after their auditions, etc.—Cats is oddly inert. It’s soulless and overly long (every single song could have at least one verse cut, and the audience wouldn’t notice anyway given the high concentration of gibberish in the lyrics).
Forget about nine lives; try finding a single convincing one in this writhing pile of excess and celebrity. Its cast of actual humans makes the miserable, expressionless animals of Disney’s CGI Lion King remake from earlier this year look like members of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Most detrimentally, Cats fails at world-building. Despite the heavy graphical enhancements, it has the cavernous feel of being shot on a sound stage. The sets are meant to telegraph that the cats we’re watching are of normal cat size, but the scaling is off, and it mostly just looks like these people in cat costumes are standing amongst giant pieces of novelty furniture. The facial CGI isn’t quite right, either—the animated cat ears hover above their human owners’ faces in such a way that I always thought a quick turn of the head could lead to an unnatural twisting or perhaps amputation. Between cartoons and humanity, Cats digs and uncanny valley and fills it with kitty litter.
To beef up the narrative, Macavity (Idris Elba) is more of a villain here, whisking several cats away to the aforementioned barge to eliminate his competitors hoping to ascend to the Heaviside Layer. (In the stage production, he only managed to kidnap Deuteronomy.) This development has all the thrill of watching the discard pile of a preschooler’s game of Memory. This is one of those movies that telegraphs its badness virtually immediately and then just keeps going until it sputters to its end, which seems as though it could come at any point during its final half-hour (and then when it doesn’t come, turns frustrating). Cats just keeps not being over.
I have no idea how this will go over. I cannot imagine audiences enjoying something so limp, but I’ve been surprised before. Despite its obviously outrageous premise, Cats manages to be the one thing it should never be by virtue of its existence: dull. It’s as though it’s suffocating on its own dander. I only see a massive disaster here: Despite the cultural agility of its source theatrical material, this Cats fails to land on its feet. What are the chances?
Cats hits theaters December 20.