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Who let the ‘Cats’ out?

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Sometimes, you see a trailer for a movie that captures your attention for all the wrong reasons. You find yourself questioning what possible series of increasingly poor decisions would lead to a world in which this movie came to be. You’re asking fundamental questions like “How?” and – perhaps more importantly – “Why?”

Those are the feelings that bubbled up from deep inside most reasonable people upon first viewing the trailer for “Cats,” director Tom Hooper’s star-studded adaptation of the (somewhat bewilderingly) beloved Broadway musical. Watching CGI-blended cat/human monstrosities gambol and cavort across the screen for just those few moments raised far more questions than any piece of art could ever answer.

Here’s the thing – that ain’t even the half of it.

“Cats” is a tortured fever dream of a film, the sort of nightmarish cinematic experience that feels like the unholy offspring of a coked-up studio executive notes session and a dark ritual intended to summon forth the Elder Gods. I walked out of this movie expecting my phone to ring, with a voice on the other end speak-singing a semi-melodic song informing me that I would die in seven days.

We are all cursed. We are all damned. We are all Cats.

For those of you unfamiliar with the musical – penned by Andrew Lloyd Webber and adapted from T.S. Eliot’s poetry collection “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” – here’s the basic rundown. A cat named Victoria (prima ballerina Francesca Hayward) is abandoned in the middle of London. She is discovered by the Jellicles, a tightly-bound group of cats tied together by a weird and complex belief system.

As Victoria learns from cats like Munkustrap (Robbie Fairchild, TV’s “Soundtrack”) and Mr. Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson, “The Good Liar”), the Jellicles are preparing for the annual Jellicle Ball, in which one of their number will be selected to ascend to the Heaviside Layer, a place from whence they will be reincarnated into a new life.

Victoria meets potential candidates like the nocturnal mouse-trainer Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson, “Jojo Rabbit”) and the goofy, gluttonous Bustopher Jones (James Corden, “Smallfoot”); she also encounters the worn-down outcast Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson, “All Rise”), who is shunned due to her connection to the sinister magic of Macavity (Idris Elba, “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw”).

Victoria joins the Jellicles as they assemble and await the competition; said competitors will be judged by the wise Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench, “All Is True”). But Macavity has other ideas, enlisting the aid of underlings Bombalurina (pop star Taylor Swift), Growltiger (Ray Winstone, “King of Thieves”) and others to undermine the contest; players like Gus the Theatre Cat (Ian McKellen, “The Good Liar”) and the rest are unable to battle against Macavity’s powers.

And … yeah. There’s some more, but it makes even less sense than what I’ve already mentioned. You get the gist.

Full disclosure: I have never seen a stage production of “Cats.” I have some cultural familiarity, and as someone who roomed with multiple musical theatre enthusiasts in college, I know the music. But I’ve never seen the musical as it was intended to be seen.

And so, I was unprepared for just how f---ing WEIRD this thing is.

We’ll start with the obvious: these … things … are horrifying to look at. The baseline wrongness of their appearance is exponentially increased by the uncanny valley effect; they look both too real and unreal at the same time. They are overly smooth and unsettlingly furry, with a strange streamlining that is inconsistently distributed. That is, some cats have boobs and others don’t, while none of them have any … business.

(Note: I’ll confess to having seen this before the newer version with updated effects hit theaters, but I have difficulty imagining that it would have made any discernible difference.)

Speaking of consistency – what’s the deal with the clothes? Some cats wear hats and/or coats, while others wear just collars and still others wear nothing at all. And all that leaves aside the scene where one cat unzips her fur to reveal clothes and MORE FUR underneath in a kind of fur-ception that raises all manner of unpleasant inquiries that one would rather not be left to contemplate.

Speaking of things best left unconsidered: I’m fairly certain that these cats are involved in some sort of death cult. This whole “chosen one ascends to the heavens in order to be reborn” bears an extremely uncomfortable resemblance to some apocalyptic fringe lunacy. Are you going to tell me that this ISN’T a sacrifice of some sort at the behest of a charismatic guru?

As for the performances, it’s hard to not feel bad for everyone. This is a STACKED cast, featuring some incredible talents, and yet all anyone is going to be able to see is CGI fur and weird scaling and absent genitalia. Francesca Hayward is obviously a gifted performer; she has some lovely dance moments. A few of the songs are lovely and there are a couple of impressive production numbers. Idris Elba gnaws on the scenery with delight, while James Corden is letting his musical theatre nerd flag fly. Sir Ian and Dame Judi seem inexplicably happy to be here. Everyone else might be good, but who can tell under all the CGI horror?

“Cats” is the kind of awful-in-the-moment film that is almost certainly assured of an ironic popularity in the years to come. We’re talking costumed singalongs a la “Rocky Horror.” It is poorly-conceived and weirdly-executed, a film whose very existence confirms the notion that we are probably living in a simulation. One thing is for certain – you’ve never seen anything like it.

Now and forever.

[1 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 23 December 2019 17:28

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