Once a year, a tribe of cats known as the jellicles led by Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) gather to make what is known as "the Jellicle choice". They decide which cat will ascend to the Heaviside Layer to a new life. Many compete for the honour including Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo), Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson), newbie Victoria (Francesca Hayward) and the dastardly Macavity (Idris Elba). And what of the lonely and neglected Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson)?
Within minutes of watching ‘Cats’, I wanted to leave the theatre. I quite like people, and cats, but these cat-human things that were first introduced in the ‘Cats’ trailer – which caused a furore when it was released last July as many experienced the uncanny valley regarding the design of the character – were seriously weirding me out. They’re singing something about jellicles and all I can think of is the heebie jeebies. In fact, the last time I felt this level of consistent discomfort through a film was ‘The Shining’, that’s how deep the sense of horror and anticipation that it could get worse ran.
Of course, it’s a cast full of contemporary pop singers such as Jason Derulo and Taylor Swift, as well as world-class dancers and Broadway performers. As a result, the singing and dancing are top notch. However their faces and bodies (human-shaped but disconcertingly naked and furry – when Idris Elba removes his coat, one is particularly appalled) are so disturbingly weird that one is consistently distracted and can’t settle in to enjoy the performances.
Derulo fares slightly better than most, perhaps because he puts less effort into acting and moving like a cat than the over-zealous chorus, but most of the numbers, as well as being too strange to enjoy, are just plain dull. You’ve Rebel Wilson making jokes about being fat, rolling around, stretching and scratching her groin (also is it just me, or can she really not sing?), while James Corden just does his singing, joking, generally being oafish, James Corden thing. Hayward, while a beautiful dancer, has little to do aside from fancy ballet moves and a little singing, and while Hudson is extraordinary in her cover of the famous ‘Memories’, it takes so long to get to the song that it’s hard to be moved. You’ve already well checked out of the movie emotionally and psychologically by that stage, if only to preserve your sanity.
The main issue with ‘Cats’, in this writer’s opinion anyway, is the chorus, as this is where the creepy cat-person design is more apparent than ever. They move around in a slithering mass akin to the monster of a horror film. One starts to get used to the aesthetic and then someone’s ears or tail will do a weird movement, moving of its own consciousness, and you’re grossed out all over again.
Aside from the fact that the narrative just seems to be about introducing characters, they do a little song and dance, then disappear for a while and either blend into the chorus, re-emerge later for another number, or just vanish outright – which gets incredibly boring, by the way – there are so many surreal creative decisions in ‘Cats’ that one finds themselves constantly faced with the question “what the hell am I even watching?” There’s the fact that Ray Winstone is in the cats cast for some reason. He sings one line and then is cut off, because he can’t sing I guess? Then there’s the fact that children play the mice. So does that mean the adult human-cats eat the children-mice? That’s too close to infanticide for comfort. And then there’s the smoothing down of everyone’s umm, parts, which begs further questions about biological functions and you’re sitting there in the cinema thinking, “why am I even thinking about this? Amn’t I supposed to be watching a movie?”
In summary, ‘Cats’ is not just as creepy as you think it’ll be, it’s creepier, and you can’t even enjoy it on a “so bad it’s good” level because it’s unbelievably boring as well. It is the most baffling cinematic experience I’ve had in a long time and it just doesn’t need to exist.