Emergency Big Hot Mess: We Need to Talk About ‘Cats’ (2019)

Posted in Blog, Movies, Theatrical by - December 26, 2019
Emergency Big Hot Mess: We Need to Talk About ‘Cats’ (2019)

I believe that, for better or for worse, the film that most defines this decade in cinema is Mad Max: Fury Road. Miller’s fourth instalment in the Mad Max series is a reboot of a cultish 80s action property, entirely re-casts its major roles, doubles down on the apocalyptic nature, and is awash in innumerable digitally augmenting effects. It’s loud, fast, and for many, might very well be the best film of the decade. At the risk of making a hyperbolic and totalizing statement, this is what mainstream Hollywood releases are now. There’s a ninth Star Wars film now. Jason Reitman is making another Ghostbusters movie, and this time a middle-aged man attempts to lecture his on how amazing the pop-culture from his childhood is. Mad Max: Fury Road may not be the best movie from this decade, but it is likely the best this decade movie from this decade.

Tom Hooper’s Cats is the trash Mad Max: Fury Road of my generation. It too is a bizarre nostalgia property, awash in strange digital effect. Every generation has the culture it wants to uphold as the watermark of what they did. But every generation also subsequently gets the trash-camp-disaster piece it deserves. The 50s got Ed Wood’s answer to the nuclear paranoid B-movies of the time, the 80s got soulless corporate rip-offs that were more (big) Mac than Mac and Me, and the early 2000s got Tommy Wiseau because everything is terrible. My generation gets a collective internet freakout over being able to make furry jokes on twitter. We all accept the love we believe we deserve.

Hooper’s Cats is probably the most united I believe that I’ve ever seen the internet, an amorphous body that is a lot of things, but most importantly is consistently divided over the most trivial of things. Nearly everyone’s reaction of the first Cats trailer way back in July was one of mixed horror and awkward befuddlement. What you heard were the collective sounds of a group of people emitting one, harmonious, nervous laugh.

The other day I found myself lamenting to a friend the disappearance of the disaster-piece. If you take a look at the Wikipedia list of film considered the worst, there’s a change in tone and tenor in recent years. Films are considered to be the worst less because of their (lack) of quality, but more so because they contain a face that’s easy to dunk on. Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas and the FIFA origin story United Passions are great examples of this, as is the Logan Paul film Airplane Mode. These are films that are bad, but they’re doubly hateable because they contain a target for the irritation. On the more positive side of the equation are the films that are like a reverse auteur piece. Films by mad scientists such as Tommy Wiseau and Neil Breen, who become lauded for their singular, one-track, and genuinely befuddling, creative minds.

The last major release that was collectively dunked on that didn’t have someone or something genuinely easy to pile onto is probably Movie 43. That’s one of the last times we were collectively willing to poke fun of people just doing their jobs, but not successfully. This trend suggests two things. One, average film quality has gone up considerably. Two, most mainstream pictures have now been sandpapered down to the boring and safest essentials. The general quality has probably gone up, but so too has the lack of risk.

In consideration of the present landscape, Cats feels tremendously refreshing, even if the film is, quite terrible. And confusing, let’s not forget confusing, so, so confusing. But it feels like someone wanted to take a risk on this. Strike that. It feels like someone started to take a risk on this one, and then it snowballed into something greater than everyone involved.

Here is ostensibly a rough overview of the plot for Cats the film. A cat introduces themselves with some nonsensical name. They then proceed to sing a nonsensical song about what makes them special. Maybe it’s that they like to eat, or that they’re old, or that they good at card tricks. Then Macavity (Idris Elba) the cinematically imposed villain of the film, who you know is the villain because his songs are in discordant keys and he’s wearing a trench coat, shows up to make them disappear. By my estimation, this three-step process occurs somewhere between half a dozen and a hundred million times (one for each dollar in the budget). Who can honestly tell? Time has little meaning when you’re watching Cats (2019).

The plot is probably the biggest change between the filmic adaptation and its original stage source material. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s original musical premiered in 1981, and was based off of a collection of T.S. Eliot poems. In no way should Cats, the musical, be a success. It’s a nonsensical show about singing people in cheap Cat costumes with a plot looser than lips that sink ships. It also ran for over eighteen years on Broadway.

Listen, I’m not a theatre kid. I can’t sing, dance, or act for the life of me. But if there is one thing that Cats (2019) proves about Cats the original, it is that theatre is a wonderful medium for offering the suspension of disbelief. Webber’s musical requires a tremendous leap of logic to presume that the thinly disguised humans on stage are actually cats, and it has worked time and time again. Hell, if you had performers that were good enough, you could probably put on a show with a couple dozen cat antennas from the dollar store and some carnival makeup in your backyard, and you’d wind up getting pretty close to pulling it off. You might very well wind-up believing that your Webber in the Park troupe are actually cats.

No one is going to mistakenly believe the “cats” in Cats (2019) are actually cats. The much-ballyhooed digital fur technology ensures that. Arguably the biggest complaint from people watching the film is simply that “it looks weird.” These cats aren’t really cats, so much as they’re a monstrous hybrid. It’s too easily discernable what parts are CGI cat and which parts are human. Faces, hands, feet, are left pseudo-rendered and anthropomorphized. But it’s uncannier whenever we see from behind a cat walking away from us. The fur is way too sleek and skin-tight. There’s a bludgeoning of de-verisimilitude throughout the film. Just when you think you might be starting to get the hang of this, James Corden as a cat will get hilarious launched in the air and you’ll begin to realize that “nope, I’m going to be aware of this the whole film.”

Tom Hooper is known for making what are pointedly award season films that often garner innumerable irritated detractors. His last musical was an adaptation of Les Misérables that is probably best known for three things. One, its bizarre camera angles and framing. Two, its strange re-working of the music to include randomly spoken lyrics that seem to pop-up with little to no logic. Three, Russell Crowe’s phenomenally misguided casting and performance.

All three of these plague Cats (2019). “Memory,” the big show stopping number towards the film’s climax, occurs in almost one unbroken close-up of Jennifer Hudson’s haggard and snot-drenched cat-face. Lyrics continue to be randomly spoken instead of sung. Ian McKellan’s number belies just how hard it is to cast musicals in a modern age, although he does commit fully to the performance, evidenced by the fact that at one point he rubs the top of his head on a post in the most cat-like motion of the film, so you take the trade-offs I guess. The hired gun performances are easily the best. If you can look past the fact that they asked Jason Derulo to sexily dance as a cat and sing a song that requires him to yell “MIIIILK” loudly at its climax, you might notice that it’s a pretty good performance.

But to ignore the first part of the above statement is to destroy the happily bizarre of Hooper’s film. This film peaks at “Mr. Mistofelees,” a jaunty number in which the other cats ask what is essentially a card trick magician to magically transport back their friends who have been kidnapped by Macavity. The number bangs, and it is the film in a nutshell Its lyrics are easy to figure out, essentially consisting of “oh well I never! Was there ever a cat so clever as magical Mr. Mistofelees” on repeat. Each time he completes the chorus, the titular Mr. Mistofelees (Laurie Davidson) tries to re-conjure the missing cats and fails. They all then begin again in earnest, like the film is actually an episode of Dora the Explorer and they return didn’t occur because “ya’ll didn’t sing hard enough.” At the number’s rousing conclusion, roughly 75% of my Friday night audience found themselves bumping and grooving along. It was one of the most surreal theatre-going experiences of my life.

And it was delightfully fun. At one point I thought about the irony of the fact that I was sitting in a tiny theatre that was half-full having a blast watching a film fall flat on its face, while next door one of the six million packed to the rafter’s screenings of The Rise of Skywalker probably had the air of funeral if the internet is to be believed. This is ostensibly the conclusion of the first season of Big Hot Mess. If there’s one thing we should take away from this season, it’s that delightfully weird comes in all shapes and sizes, and is infinitely more engaging than boringly safe. Plotless has a charm that outstrips too much plot.

Most importantly though, you can find something wonderful in everything. Cats (2019) is terrible. By all objective cinematic measures, the film fails; except for one— it swings from its heels. I can’t stop thinking about this Big Hot Mess, because it’s so earnestly developed. We gravitate to messes, because there is a peculiar beauty inherent to their grand failure. Cats (2019) may be terrible objectively, but subjectively, it’s wonderful and the ideal end to this decade at the movies.

Thus concludes season one of Big Hot Mess! I want to thank you all for reading along the way, as without you this column wouldn’t exist. Season Two begins again at the end of January. If you’ve got suggestions for messes you would like to see covered fire them off to my twitter handle, and it will be taken under consideration. In the meantime, I wish you all a wonderful holiday season, and I will see you all in the New Year.

This post was written by
Thomas Wishloff is currently an MA student at York University. He is new to the Toronto Film Scene, but has periodically written and podcasted for several now defunct ventures, and has probably commented on a forum with you at some point. The ex-Edmontonian has been known to enjoy a good board game, and claims to know the secret to the best popcorn in the world.
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