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Cats Got Your Tongue

Tom Hooper's film is as absurd as the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, but at least it's given us something new to talk about.

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

You’ve already heard that Cats is not very good. People will still see it because they love to be in on the joke. Perfect films—Bicycle Thieves, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Safe, Short Cuts—are surely not easy to make, but perfect cultural moments are impossible to engineer. That’s the accomplishment of Cats.

The culture (maybe I mean the internet) loves cats, and the culture (I definitely mean the internet) loves jokes. Enter Tom Hooper’s adaptation of the inexplicably beloved 1981 musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, itself adapted from a collection of light verse by the Nobel laureate T.S. Eliot. I don’t know if Hooper’s Cats is art; I don’t know if it’s camp. But I know it’s the holidays, and many of us have to take our parents and siblings and nieces and cousins on a trip to the Cineplex to see … something. See Cats! You can laugh with or at it, but either way you’ll be diverted for two hours and have something to talk about over dinner. To ask Cats to also be good is pushing it.

The story (such as it is) involves Victoria (Francesca Hayward, a principal in the Royal Ballet) being abandoned on the street. She’s a cat; you probably already understood that. She meets up with a host of other cats, who introduce themselves to us via song and dance, then jockey for the favor of Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench, looking exactly like Bert Lahr) via ... song and dance. Old Deuteronomy will, by some metric never explained to us, determine which cat ascends to the Heavyside Layer to be granted a new life or eternal bliss or something.

We meet a bunch of cats: a lazy house cat, Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson, wholly uncharming); a fat street cat, Bustopher Jones (James Corden, deeply irritating as always); the mischief-makers Mungojerry and Rumpleteazer (Naoimh Morgan and Danny Collins, who are fine, I guess—what do you really want a cat performance to entail?); an old actor called Gus (I don’t know what an acting cat is, but he’s played by Ian McKellen); Grizabella, a diva who has fallen on hard times (Jennifer Hudson, who once won an Oscar for singing a song); Rum Tum Tugger, a show-off (Jason Derulo, who has no charisma but a lot of, um, confidence). There’s a bad guy called Macavity (Idris Elba, handsome as usual even though he’s a cat), and he’s up to some bad-guy things, but you needn’t worry about the specifics.

The weakest parts of Hooper’s film are the numbers played with a wink—Wilson’s and Corden’s. They bring a too-contemporary irony to the material. When Dench breaks the fourth wall, she does it with utter conviction. She can’t sing! It’s immaterial because she’s a true actor. When Jennyanydots bumbles around or Bustopher Jones jokes about just how fat he is, you feel the performers asserting themselves. Cats only works (to whatever degree it does) because of its incredible confidence in itself. You can’t hate-watch this movie; you end up wanting to applaud the film’s devotion to delusion.

I have somehow made it this far without mentioning the rendering of the cats, which is all that anyone’s talking about. Broadway audiences have to accept watching humans in costumes; cinematic audiences demand (or are given) technological apparitions. The eye doesn’t know how to read these beasts. They’re humans, in costumes, but they’re also technological apparitions, famous faces obscured by digital fur. It made for a discomfiting couple of hours. (If you think the cats sound disturbing, wait until you see the mice.)

The complaints about the cats are salient. We still find impossible images revolting, much as evolution teaches us to feel a chill at the sight of dangerous spiders. Cats isn’t scary, but it is unsettling, not in the uncanny valley but certainly in one of its suburbs. The stage show uses balletic movements to recall those of felines and over-the-top costumes to achieve suggestion rather than simulacrum. Those are the conventions of the medium, and we understand our imagination must do the rest.

Cats is the latest in a line of things I found hard to look at: Those digital renderings that sell luxury condos, full of ghostly furniture; manipulated celebrity portraits; product photography on the internet marketplace, leached of shadow and color; Instagram, which filters the not-photogenic out of our lives; the ceaseless scroll of memes and gifs. Even documentary images of Australia ablaze or Venice vanishing beneath the sea seem impossible for the eye to comprehend. Younger viewers may not struggle as I did, much as teens can hear specific tones that my ears cannot.

It’s possible that even if you find the movie strange to look at, you’ll be entertained just enough not to worry. In 1995, The New Yorker published a cartoon lamenting the exhausting saga of O.J. Simpson’s trial. I spent two hours watching Cats, and I didn’t once think about the collapse of the planet’s health or the inmates we’ve elected to run our asylum. I can’t imagine a better endorsement. I thought about why the digital artists gave Hudson a perpetually runny nose (gross), and how much Taylor Swift got paid to be in this movie, and why I found one of the cats so disturbingly sexy, and whether foreign markets will bother with subtitles given how little sense the dialogue and lyrics make, and the closeted teen boys who will feign disdain but secretly be thrilled when their family drags them to see Cats.

Most of the applicable criteria for judging a movie are irrelevant here. Cats has no interest in plot; the performances don’t aspire to more than shtick; Webber’s songs aren’t great, though they are horrifyingly memorable (“Well, of all things, can it be really / Yes, no, ho, hi, oh my eye! / My mind may be wandering but I confess / I believe it is Old Deuteronomy!” How is this a song even?); and the source text is superficial. You might still want to know if it’s a good movie, but that is the wrong question. Cats is sui generis.

One of my favorite David Bowie songs is “The Secret Life of Arabia.” It’s the final track on Heroes, and I have no idea what it’s about, or indeed whether it is “about” something. “You must see the movie the sand in my eyes / I walk through a desert song when the heroine dies,” Bowie sings. I can’t parse this, but I know Bowie was half mad on cocaine at the time and that Brian Eno was helping him craft albums that didn’t attempt to make any sense. It still means something to me. Somewhere out there is someone who will feel something similar hearing Dame Judi Dench croak out, “You’ve learned enough to take the view / That cats are very much like you.” God bless them.