Cats the Movie: Purr-fection or a Cat-astrophe?


Angela McKinzie ’21, Assistant News Editor

When the teaser trailer came out for Cats last summer, the internet exploded in fits of mortification, bewilderment, and down-right confusion. If you have seen any promotional posters, YouTube ads, or memes on Instagram and Twitter, you may already know why everyone reacted the way they did. If you haven’t, well, that may be for the best. Seeing the A-list cast of Judi Dench, James Corden, Taylor Swift, Jennifer Hudson, Jason Derulo, and many other stars as a hybrid between a human and a cat created what some people called “nightmare fuel” from the visual effects alone–and all of this before the movie even purrmiered yet. 

Seeing musicals become movies excites musical-theatre fans more than you can ever know, but, for the general public, these movies can be met with wary interest, for they don’t really know the plot or background of the meowsical. Leading up to the release date on December 20, 2019, several YouTube channels and news outlets posted content surrounding the actual plot of the broadway-hit Cats to try and answer the “why” and “what” behind the cat visual effects and the substance of the movie. Now, this is where it kind of gets complicated… 

You see, Andrew Lloyd Webber, a musical theatre giant with some of his most notable work being Phantom of the Opera and Jesus Christ Superstar, wrote the music for Cats, which is the fourth-longest running show on Broadway and won 7 Tonys at the 37th Tony Awards in 1983. Even though Webber wrote the music, he was inspired by a collection of poems by T.S. Elliot in a book entitled Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (“Old Possum” being a Elliot’s nickname). The fact that the plot is based on several poems about different cats lends itself to the somewhat choppy nature of the plot and why some people felt that it made no sense. Each poem became a song for each of the characters in the musical, and as each character enters the plot, they get their own song to describe who they are and their position in the cat “hierarchy.” Despite the majority of the poems being characters, Lloyd made some additions to the musical with Grizabella and Victoria, two of the main characters in the show, to try and make the plot more cohesive. 

So…what is the plot? A very condensed summary by Wikipedia describes it as the “story of a tribe of cats called the Jellicles and the night they make the ‘Jellicle choice,’ deciding which cat will ascend to the Heaviside Layer and come back to a new life,” which makes so much more sense! [not really]. This is a spoilers free review, so I’m not going to ruin it for anyone who hasn’t seen the movie or musical yet, but here is my mini synopsis of the movie: In a nutshell, every Jellicle cat, the name of the group of the cats in the musical, is vying to get the chance to start a new life and fulfill any dreams that they have, and the only way they can do this is if they are chosen by the oldest and most respected cat, Old Deuteronomy, to be whisk(er)ed away to the “Heaviside Layer,” or their passage into their next life. All of the cats showcase their talents throughout the movie and show around the new cat, Victoria, to the ways of life, but the Villain of the show, Macavity, tries to jeopardize the selection process and get a new life of his own without actually being chosen. Throughout the movie, the audience follows every cat’s own story and why they each think they deserve a new life. Even though this synopsis is just a generalization of the plot, I hope it kind of shed some clarity on the plot without spoiling it, but it doesn’t negate the fact that this is still a rather odd show.

With the combination of the cat visual effects, or what the VFX called “digital fur technology,” with the peculiarity of the plot, I found it odd that out of all the musicals to make a movie, they chose this one to grace the big screen. Yes, it is a big success on Broadway and features some iconic songs, but the transfer of stage makeup and costumes to VFX on actual human bodies and the rather “different” storyline to that of general movies, it doesn’t seem like the best choice to serve to the public and expect good reviews. 

When the movie actually came out, the reviews and comments were borderline claw-ful with the Rotten Tomatoes score being 20% and the IMDb rating being a 2.8/10. Some sources described it as “a purr-fectly dreadful hairball of woe” and “outlandishly tacky”–some critics did not even know how to describe what they saw because of the visuals in itself. After opening weekend, the movie only made a little over $6 million, which doesn’t even begin to offset the startling cost to make the movie: $95-100 million. With these numbers, I think it is safe to say that Cats was a bust and will now go down in hissstory for being one of the worst movies of 2019. 

 I think how the movie looked visually and the transfer from stage to big screen are what made families and most people ignore the pawsibility of even seeing the film because, well, a big part of movies is how it looks–if it doesn’t look good, then you lose a majority of your audience. Personally, I think the movie wasn’t that bad overall. Even though I went to see it as a joke with friends, it was clear for me to see that there was a tremendous amount of effort put into everyone’s purrformance and the choreography executed by some actors was truly baffling. I give it an A for effort, but I don’t think I’m going to a second viewing. I would say to go see it and judge for yourself, but maybe just save yourself the nightmares and listen to the soundtrack or watch some clips from the 1998 recording of the show on stage.