Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, once the longest-running musical in London, now—and for future generations—one of the worst musical films ever made, took the writer twenty years to come out in its final form. But there is just one simple thing we would like to know: how did we get there? Like many questions in the film, there’s no answer to this one. After two hours, Tom Hooper’s Cats leaves you dizzy, with empty eyes, still haunted by the experience. You can hardly explain what you felt deep down. You have developed the Stockholm syndrome of Cats, and you will never, ever again look at your own cat the same way. And in order to conjure the damnation, there’s only one thing you must do: see it again. So hold on to your whiskers because we are about to take you on a ride through the Jellicle CGI world of Cats.
It’s 2020 in this Internet-driven world, and the thing that the Internet loves the most is cats. So maybe Cats is part of a whole plan from Tom Hooper to disgust everybody from the Internet and take over the web. Because if that was not the actual plan, the film would have featured the second most-loved thing of the internet: Nicolas Cage. (The best part of this is that it’s not so much about how good he would be in Cats as how much Cats would gain so much more confidence and appeal by starring him. Can you imagine hundreds of new GIFs featuring both cats and Nicolas Cage? Wouldn’t that be the most wonderful thing?)
When the film begins, we are unleashed in the dark corners and narrow streets around Piccadilly Circus, in a nightly world of abandoned cats, who call themselves the Jellicles. Once in a year, they gather for the Jellicle Choice, a ceremony in which they must sing Jellicle Songs and one of them will be chosen by Old Deuteronomy, their leader, to embark on a Jellicle Big Journey. So, basically, the cat who sings best dies at the end, with the chief of the clowder’s blessings. It is in this context that Victoria, the ballerina cat, lands, and who, throughout the whole film, looks like she’s amazed by how fucked up the CGI look on other cats. Victoria (Francesca Hayward), basically, is us, the not-so-wise humans who ended up in an empty theatre to conjure our curiosity. And like us, she remains there until the end of the film because she can’t believe her cat’s eyes. Her cicerone in this ugly world is Munkustrap (Robbie Fairchild), who holds the record of the number of times a character says ‘Jellicle’—a portmanteau word probably made up from the words ‘genitals’ and ‘testicle’. And if you had any doubts about how perfectly bad this is going to be, the overture and the prologue feature the full range of what the 24-key Bontempi keyboard that Santa brought me when I was four years old can do. And that alone should regain your composure.
After we are introduced to the whole bunch of pussies, our favourite Jellicle weirdo Munkustrap asserts that Coricopat or Jellylorum are ‘more dignified’ names than Augustus or Victor, in ‘The Naming of Cats,’ and ends by singing that ‘when you notice a cat in profound meditation,’ he thinks about his name. To Mukunstrap I say: I have a cat. And when he stares blankly, it is more likely that he is setting out a widespread conflict that would end any human life on Earth rather than thinking about the fact that his name is Kitty*. And from now on, Cats is all about discovering, one by one, the Jellicle cats competing to win the supreme prize of death, so let’s discover them together.
Jennyanydots, the Gumbie cat (Rebel Wilson). She’s all about sitting, eating, sitting again and has a noticeable passion for eating cockroaches and mice that have human baby faces, and spreading her legs so everybody can witness her scratching her crotch. What a start.
Rum Tum Tugger, the Horny cat (Jason Derulo). He pushes the boundaries of dorkiness so far that you just can’t resist him, nor can you with his song, which is like anything Stevie Wonder would have composed if he was deaf instead of blind. His non-CGI burgundy fur coat and his wiggle-wiggle-wiggling choreography, somewhere between Grease and a low-budget R’n’B music video from the early 2000s, all brought with big dick energy with Jason Derulo. Hm—whatcha say about that?
Bustopher Jones, the Fat cat (James Corden). He calls himself fat, and frankly, that’s all he is. James Corden pushes hard on fat jokes and gags (Bustopher Jones on a balance board, Bustopher Jones eating huge things in just one bite…) and if that was not enough suffering, his singing is as disastrous as his Carpool Karaoke fake driving is excellent. (Remember when everybody believed he was actually driving a car? Well, you won’t hesitate that much as to think whether Cats features his own singing voice or not.)
Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer, the Cockney cat-burglars duo (Danny Collins and Naoimh Morgan). There’s not much to say about them besides that they put you on alert regarding how tall the CGI cats are : at this point in the film, most of the time they seemed to have a normal cat size, with some exceptions, in which they appear to be slightly shorter than the humans in their ping-pong-ball-covered costume. But in Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer’s singing scene, all the characters look microscopic in comparison to the set. But that’s just one of the film’s multiple CGI problems, and as Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer would way, “most of the time, they left it at that.” Also, there is a dog in this scene. Well, kinda—you just hear the dog bark, creating an outstandingly failed terrorising effect. That’s a shame, because having an actor ruin the interpretation of a dog is just what this film lacks.
Old Deuteronomy, the Geriatric cat (Judi Dench). Okay, now it gets serious. Judi Dench, who was to star in the original West End production of Cats in 1981, had to withdraw because of a torn Achilles tendon, but she said yes to Tom Hooper who offered her the part of Old Deuteronomy, the matriarch of the Jellicle tribe. She appears at the end of the song, arrayed with more fur than if Cardi B had fucked the CGI version of the Lion King, her face being so stoic that even Michelangelo wouldn’t have been able to make a Judi Dench marble sculpture that monolithic. I love Judi Dench (who doesn’t?), but to be honest, having her killed in Skyfall only to resurrect her in this is no less than… a Dame shame.
Victoria, the Ballerina cat. We had almost forgot Victoria, who remains nevertheless the film’s main character. But halfway through the film, after we get to meet Old Deuteronomy, she has her own singing moment with the Golden Globe-nominated song ‘Beautiful Ghosts,’ the only original song written especially for the film by Andrew Lloyd Webber, the evil mastermind behind all that, and Taylor Swift, who once again was in competition with Beyoncé at the Globes, ten years after the Kanye-led Grammy feud. TayTay did not win this time, but neither did Bey—both have been out-Globed by Her Majesty Sir Elton John, who’s gonna love himself again for the rest of his days. Anyway, ‘Beautiful Ghosts,’ which is featured one more time in the end credits (sung by Swift), is a charming little piano ballad. It is quite disconcerting regarding Cats’s uncontrollable amount of outdated instrumentations and arrangements, so that’s the only genuine positive comment we could make about the film’s musical aspect. Plus, it is the only song that does not have ludicrous lyrics like ‘My name is Tweedlepurr, the histrionic cat, I’m a cat and an histrion.’
Gus, the Theatre cat (Ian McKellen). Suddenly appears on-screen Sir Ian McKellen, with bushy sideburns, and that was the first time since the beginning that I honestly thought, ‘Oh, at least someone who actually looks like a cat.’ But by the end of my thought, he meows, and those two seconds devastated everything. In two words, Gus was once the greatest stage actor in the Cats underworld—some kind of Laurence Meowlivier, if you like—but is now an old male cat who only has shitty roles of old male cats. It is unquestionably painful to watch him sing this, because, well, that’s what he actually is. But boy, watch him a few minutes later licking a fucking bowl of milk and you will be wondering that Kevin Spacey did, in fact, affirm his homosexuality in a more elegant way. (That joke shalt not pass, but hey, if Tom Hooper wrote this, I can certainly write that.)
Skimbleshanks, the Railway cat (Steven McRae). ‘Skimbleshanks the Railway cat / The cat of the railway train’ are actual lyrics repeated a number of times throughout this song, which blends the spirit of Christmas with late-90s techno-infused breaks (are you not already entertained?). We don’t know who Skimbleshanks is, we have never seen him before, and frankly, we don’t care, because his style alone is something to live for—he only wears a red jumpsuit and burgundy tap shoes, probably the same outfit used by the guy who would play Tom Hanks in the porn version of The Polar Express, if only this would be a real thing. French people have been complaining all winter about the railway workers’ strike, so let’s hope Brexit will bring more Skimbleshanks tap-dancing at the rhythm of a departing steam train.
Macavity, the Mystery cat (Idris Elba). Why is he ‘the Mystery cat’? Because he wears a hat and there is no explanation why his ears come through it, for once. But also because—we have become familiar with him earlier in the film—he can make cats disappear, just like that, in a CGI smoke cloud. That is how Jennyanydots and Bustopher Jones have been out of the picture for almost half an hour now—apparently, there is a thematic. Macavity is introduced by Bombalurina (Taylor Swift), who comes down from the ceiling and sings in a sex phone hostess voice—unable to resist the joy of taking an English accent—raising thereby another important question : why is every cat not identified by its gender but Taylor Swift has huge breasts? Is cats’ boobs even a thing? Once again, we will never know, but someone upstairs felt that she had to be sexy—fun fact: in the stage production of Cats, this is sung by two lady cats, implying that Macavity is not only a scoundrel, he also likes a good three-way. According to the lyrics of this vocal jazz song with a John Carpenter-like introduction, Macavity, ‘the bafflement of Scotland Yard,’ has ‘broken any human law, he breaks the law of gravity,’ but later on TayTay states that the biggest crime he has ever done is cheat at cards. I thus came out with the guess that Macavity is a pathological liar with enough sashay to pose as an actual bad guy. And the ridiculous—yet still inexplicable—way he gets kicked off of the storyline about ten minutes later somehow proved me right.
Mr. Mistoffelees, the Harry Pawtter (Laurie Davidson). Oh, God, I hate magicians. Every time I see one, I can’t help but think of Will Arnett making unsuccessful, ridiculous tricks in Arrested Development and, therefore, I always have his signature song in mind, ‘The Final Countdown’. And there was no exception during this scene; what got me out from humming Europe’s glam metal hit in my head was Jason Derulo’s Bee Gees impersonation towards the end of the song. So, from what I understood after the magician repeated a thousand times ‘Oh, well, I never / Was there ever a cat so clever / As magical Mr. Mistoffelees?’ is that if you want the trick to work, the audience has to sing along. At least it worked this time.
Grizabella, the Mucus cat (Jennifer Hudson). Finally, the Jellicle adventure comes to an end, but at this point, your senses have been altered so bad that you’re not sure if you have been locked in the theatre for the last ninety or fifteen minutes or if you were born there and you have spent all your life watching Cats. But the good news is that Mr. Mistoffelees’s trick made Macavity literally disappear from the script and brought Old Deuteronomy back to the tribe so she can watch Grizabella’s performance, make her choice and leave us go back to our miserable lives. Grizabella, who was once ostracised by the Jellicles (you know the rule, just don’t ask why), seeks the recognition of her former tribe, so she sings ‘Memory,’ also known as ‘the only famous song from Cats so you better not fuck up,’ and sings the near-entirety of the song with Niagara Falls of snot coming out of her nose. Just when you thought it was over, there comes what will remain your worst memory.
Now, after having heard the word ‘Jellicle’ more times than Martin Scorsese writes the F-word in any of his gangster film scripts, the story of Cats is officially over. But what good is an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical if it has not a never-ending finale? This is how we are magically transported to Trafalgar Square (because there are lion statues, you get it?) to hear what Old Deuteronomy has to say to conclude the most enjoyable two-hour travesty. Just like when Frodo throws the ring in the fire, The Return of the King carries on for one more hour with nothing left to say, and that’s exactly how you will feel at the end of Cats. In ‘The Addressing of Cats,’ the title of the finale song, Judi Dench really needs to tell us some more things about cats that she felt we had not quite well assimilated by then. And she begins by saying that we now know all of them—NO GIRL WE DON’T. I could not even name half of the cats, for a simple reason, which is that there are like two hundred cat-racters in this film and you just never call half of them! I had to look up on the soundtrack album and on the IMDb to discover that the main character’s name was Victoria, so come on… Worse than that: she clearly states that the name of a cat is the most important thing to learn from them. So I guess the point of the whole film was to learn the second lesson: ‘a cat is not a dog.’ Well thank you for the tip Judi, now I can only hope for Ralph Fiennes to die in a future Bond film so he can end up playing the king of CGI dogs one day and say more constructive things like ‘Woof!’
From all of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s dumb musicals (okay, his three Tim Rice collabs are something apart), Cats is first-class. Its vacuous lyrics, half-baked compositions, ridiculous choreographies, wretched costumes and grotesque makeup have easily made it one of the most painful stage musicals to ever endure, despite having become (abnormally) one of the most awarded and successful in history. But Tom Hooper did somehow manage to turn it into an uproarious celebration of mediocrity in what must be remembered as an object of top-notch enjoyment. See Cats. Please. Show it in film schools. Cherish this film and recommend it to everyone you know. Because you won’t see anything like it for a very, very long time.
And since it’s the most important thing to learn from the film, have you ever wondered what your cat name would be? I have thought about this a lot since I have seen the film and I think I would be a hip-hop cat with a nasty swagger that would out-cat Jason Derulo, who would go by the name of Trapsputin.
Written by Valentin Maniglia.
Edited by Marine Wong Kwok Chuen.
* Kitty is my cat’s actual name. Don’t judge.