‘Cats’: The musical that got declawed

Jan. 30, 2020, 10:57 p.m.

“Has the moon lost her memory?” asks Grizabella, the Glamour Cat. Well, let’s just say that after seeing “Cats,” I wish that I could lose my memory. The new movie, based on the infamous Broadway musical, was a complete train-wreck, to say the least. I ended up seeing it with a friend because “Little Women” was sold out. I wanted to see the movie anyway, out of curiosity, and because I absolutely love musicals.

The trailer for “Cats” is truly horrifying, and if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend you watch it. For some unknown reason, the production team of this movie decided to CGI the actors to look like cat-human hybrids. It is exactly as scarring as it sounds. I was intrigued, however, after seeing the trailer, and wanted to go watch the movie to see for myself what else the production team got terribly wrong.

For some background, “Cats” is the fourth longest-running Broadway show, and won seven Tonys. The story of the show is based on the poetry of T.S. Eliot. I have never seen the musical, but, for a show about cats to run for eighteen years, I figure it must be incredible. The movie, on the other hand, took a dark, dark turn.

The movie opens with a jarring musical number about “jellicle” cats, which is a direct reference to Eliot’s poem “Five-Finger Exercises.” Because of this song, I quickly figured out who the main character was, but other than that, it did absolutely nothing besides confuse me. I never quite figured out what “jellicle” meant, and the camera flashed around to different human-cat species in a dark alleyway.

At some point in this dark and confusing movie, I figured out that there was a “bad” cat that the other cats couldn’t be left alone with, or else they vanished! (Magic!) It took a while to figure out why: there was a jellicle cat ball at the end of the year during which one cat is chosen to restart their life.

That is essentially the entire plot of the movie, and the songs just introduce cat after cat after cat after cat. Watching the characters sing and dance was slightly unsettling and downright creepy. The CGI sat somewhere between fully cat and fully human, making the actors feline monsters. I also couldn’t quite tell if they were actually dancing, or if they were CGIed to dance. Their bodies seemed to float for slightly too long and move in too fluid a way for it to be a real human dancing. (I bet there’s a cast member in this movie, though, who trained to be a prima ballerina for years who is incredibly upset that it did a terrible injustice to her dancing.)

The singing for the movie was good overall, but the soundtrack was a modern take on classic broadway tunes that didn’t quite work. In fact, nothing in this movie seemed to work. None of the songs stood out to me (except for “Memories,” the iconic tune), and the individual songs just seemed uncomfortable and unrelated. They were mostly biographies about the different cat characters.

Although, I do have some highlights. Rebel Wilson, James Corden and Taylor Swift (this one might be biased) were outstanding! Because the movie was generally uncomfortable, I found myself laughing at serious moments just because what I was looking at was so outrageous. The characters played by these three stars, however, were actually supposed to be funny, making them downright hysterical due to the added humor of the special effects. When these characters were on, I was finally laughing at something that was intended to be funny.

After the jellicle ball and the redemptive moment of the musical, I was relieved to think that the movie might be coming to an end. But every time I thought it was almost over, Judi Dench just kept singing. I thought she hit her final note at least ten times, and it felt as if the movie just would not end. By that point, I wanted to be put out of my misery so much that I thought her never-ending song was comical. I actually laughed so hard I cried.

Do I regret seeing this movie? No. The movie provoked endless questions, such as: Where did the production team go wrong? Who thought the CGI was a good idea? Why didn’t anyone stop them? Did nobody, at any point in the entire movie-making process, realize how horrifying this all is? Why would Taylor Swift let them do this to her?

For my parting words, I leave you with this fact: When the movie started, there were about twenty people in the theater. When it ended, my friend and I were the only two left.

Contact Katie Buntic at kbuntic ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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