09 February 2020

First Impressions: CATS

This is a first for Norwegian Morning Wood - I am actually live-blogging the Oscars right now while simultaneously writing this post about CATS (2019), which feels all kinds of fitting. We'll see which one I can finish first! For some reason Hollywood has forgotten CATS on its most magical night, so it's time we acknowledge it.

CATS was the second of three films I saw in theaters over Christmas. The first being Uncut Gems (2019), which was equally snubbed - you may read my impressions here. As I mentioned in that review, I am reviewing these films in chronological order, which is also the order that I liked them. Yes, I liked the last film less than CATS. Much less. We'll get there.

Kitty titties ties AVABAR (2009) for
horniest CGI effort of the decade.

But there are many, many films I enjoyed less than CATS. CATS was amazing. It's a different kind of amazing, though. First off, this is definitely not a good movie. There is no part of this that's good. It's not quite in that "so bad it's good" zone, either. It's objectively a movie that fails at just about everything it tries to do. Normally that's our greatest criteria for judging a film. We may judge an adult character drama by very different standards than a summer tentpole. Now, I argue that a summer blockbuster still needs grounded characters and a coherent plot to go along with the roller coaster spectacle, but there's certainly a lot more leeway and forgiveness if the latter is done well while the former suffers. A comedy film may have a cookie-cutter plot but can be successful if it's actors are charismatic and the jokes land. Those films are successes, regardless if they don't adhere to strict standards of what the visual medium otherwise calls for. SPOILERS here, but who cares, this film is better if you know what you're getting into...

Nothing works in CATS. Absolutely nothing. The plot is nonexistant. The visual effects are terrible. The cast is mostly a series of stunts that don't work. It's not a character study. As a musical it has catchy songs but they don't advance the plot or convey inner feelings or monologues. It even fails at presenting itself as a fun diversion that you can turn your brain off and enjoy for two hours. So, why did I love this so much?

I was horrified at the first trailer. It just hit me like something very deeply disturbing and misguided. Obviously it was a great mine shaft full of joke gold. That's probably what first attracted me to the worst film of 2019. How can you let a movie like this pass you by? The film is so obviously a bad idea on every level. How was this ever made?

Hollywood is a bizarre institution. Supposedly risk-adverse and run only by committee these days, occasionally there's a film that slips through the cracks. It's impossible that this made it past test screenings unscathed. Someone pushed this through. Someone was trying to be an innovator and a maverick and wanted this on screen. I would love to watch a film in twenty years made about the making of CATS. It must read like Ed Wood (1994). "Sir, are you sure about this?" "Yeah, no one will notice!"

This is what makes it so compelling. Every second - literally every second this movie is playing in front of you is completely and utterly baffling. How did any of these decisions pass by an army of producers and test audiences? It may be the most misguided movie ever made. The core conceit, the actual concept driving the movie is so completely flawed. Maybe we should back up.

CATS of course is based on Andrew Lloyd Webber's inexplicably long-running musical of the same name, which is in turn based on T.S. Eliot's book of collected cat stories called "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats." This is where dreams come from, people. Film Crit Hulk has much more background than I could possibly provide, because I'll admit that my entire basis for understanding CATS is mostly from Unbreakable Kimmie Schmidt. As far as I know, it's just a parade of homeless people and out of work actors adding themselves to the cast and no one ever really notices.

I definitely didn't realize that was actually the LITERAL plot of CATS. To catch you up to speed if you haven't seen this, because of course you actually haven't, this play and subsequent movie are just about a series of alley cats with weird names singing a song to introduce themselves so that one of them can die. That just seems insane, right? The movie lays that out very specifically. It's not an inference. These Jellicle Cats, which should never be questioned, all take turns singing their introduction songs until Judi Dench chooses them to ascend to heaven and die. Maybe it's a nine lives thing, I don't know.

That's literally the movie. I knew going in not to expect any more and neither should you. It's just a parade of wacky characters and then it just sort of ends. This is a nice excuse to have a ton of cameos and big actors / musicians like Jason Derulo and Taylor Swift to pop in, sing their song and pop out. They don't even need to be in costume, just mo-cap suits. It's a nice way to get a lot of big names attached to this terrible movie.

How did this play become so popular? I don't know. Groupthink? For whatever reason, CATS the play became THE Broadway Play to see in New York. It was a big tourist thing. It was weird and different and "Memories" is pretty good. The production and costuming was garish and distracting from how weird the actual plot is. It's just a series of fun songs, most of which work, if not a little blatantly Andrew Lloyd Webber-ish. Big, bold, grand - hitting emotional beats but in such a calculated way that it reads as false. It works to put butts in seats.

Why can't one of the biggest theatrical productions of all time become one of the biggest films? Well, this ought to be a great example of why and how media are different. CATS may have been fine if they had chosen the costume route - or at least mostly costumes with minor digital tweaks to smooth out fur transitions. Instead, the biggest barrier to enjoying this film is the uncanniness of the people-felines that the film fills itself with.

Apparently they did in fact use motion capture, but you could have convinced me otherwise. There are literally moments where characters' eyes are floating in their faces, unable to stand still. We were lucky enough to watch the original theatrical version, which you can tell by keeping a look out for Judi Dench's big wedding ring on a very human hand. We thought we'd have to be eagle-eyed viewers to see the one scene where this happens. No, it's evident in every single scene she appears in. And before here all the cats have human hands. Every single one. We just seem to exist on a line here, and maybe that is the Hollywood meddling - afraid of commitment one way or the other. Are they humans? Are they cats? We can't make a decision. Instead they are cat-sized human-cat people that are endlessly freaky.

The baffling choices don't end there. There are also mice-people and cockroach-people. The mice-people are played by children, which has all kinds of disturbing implications, and Rebel Wilson-cat feels very comfortable eating cockroach-people. Why wasn't this changed? Giant monsters can eat people. People can eat nameless, faceless things. Smiling people, who are have names, faces, personalities, and charisma eating equally smiling cockroach people is fantastically disturbing. It borders on sociopathy. It's entirely devoid of what the general populace of human society believes to be normative behavior.

In addition to hands and faces there are many more tragic visual effects choices. Most cats are colored like cats, so even though they're definitely all naked, they just seem like cats. Idris Elba, however, even though he's largely depicted in a big coat as magic evil cat Macavity, inexplicably takes his coat off near the end of the film and just seems really weirdly naked. I think it's because the brown fur matches his natural skin color, so instead of looking purple or gray, it's just a buff gyrating naked man. His CGI really needed to match hair, not skin, which gets into all sorts of problematic elements.

Problematic. That's a fun word for this movie. I don't think Jason Derulo's bulge removal is a huge deal, but James Corden's Bustopher Jones exists solely as a fat joke. Rebel Wilson strips her fur to reveal a costume over her other fur. Judi Dench's end monologue is longer than Return of the King (2003). Maybe we're getting into nitpicking individual scenes, but every time you think this movie can't get more ridiculous something else happens. Literally right up until the end when Judi Dench just won't stop talking, all the while while every other cast member keeps the same awed expression on their face.

Speaking of things that go on forever, we need to talk about Magical Mr. Mistoffelees, which first of all, should be an indicator that he's secretly an evil cat - does Andrew Lloyd Webber know who Mephistopheles is? Or did he just think it was a cool name? This should be foreshadowing - okay, we're getting off track. He tries to use magic to bring back Judi Dench from the hands of Macavity (who stole all the other cats so that he could be the Jellicle Cat and finally die [except no, he didn't even do that, Jason Derulo was still available. Nevermind.]), and everyone is like, well, Mr. Mistoffelees can just magic her back. He obviously can't. So they just sing encouragement to him again. He fails. They sing it again. He fails. They try one more time - maybe it'll work this time for some reason! Each time is such a let down! He does it. Great. I see your wedding ring, Judi.

At some point it's like they are all vying to by the chosen one to die just to get out of this movie.

Beyond the people cats, the rest of the effects are truly terrible. I was most put off by the compositing, which looked straight out of the 90s. Characters fluttered across their obviously green screened backgrounds, lighting and shadows didn't even attempt to match. The whole affair was maddeningly weightless, every leap, every pounce felt like nothing. In the same year where Marvel was constructing sets so good out of CGI you never even questioned that they weren't real this is less and less acceptable in a major studio release. Hell, this wouldn't really be acceptable in 2002.

Is the terrible CGI in service of the plot? As in, does nonsensical production design match a nonsensical plot? Maybe. I am pondering this movie a lot, because I enjoyed it. But it's not like I enjoy watching really bad movies like I'm Tom Servo. I do think that everything comes together here. If the effects were amazing it just wouldn't be the whole experience. It creates a more coherent narrative that this was the least thought out, most rushed, poorly judged, misguided modern blockbuster in recent memory.

What's important is that last word - memory. I remember many scenes from this film. I remember more than I do from Bumblebee (2018) or The MEG (2018). I couldn't tell you a thing that happened in those and I watched both a mere seven months before CATS. It's distinctive, there is a clear vision here. It's just that that vision is absolutely insane and off the mark of good receptive taste.

In terms of worst movies ever, CATS is unique. It's not trying to be a really self-serious film that falls on its face like Gigli (2003). It's also not quite trying to be a goofy comedy whose jokes don't land like Movie 43 (2013). It's not terrible because of its low budget or bad acting like The Room (2003). It's something else, and in that mystery is what makes it so intriguing. It's as if while making all these obvious production choices they could have gone with something else and just refused every single time. Maybe that carefree attitude is liberating.

I also have a theory that this and more movies will start existing just for the memes. Memes are bigger than any movie or TV show. I have the same suspicion about Sonic the Hedgehog (2020), but they seem to have unfortunately course corrected that one. It's a shame. These films are produced to be bad and ridiculous on purpose to then let the population (or industry plants) re-purpose their ridiculousness as "making fun of the serious film", but that was the original intention in the first place. This is how marketing in the 21st Century now works, people. It's a fine line to walk. The original media needs to exist unironically for users to then apply their own smug irony and cynicism. Or to actually glorify with new sincerity. Millennial tastes escape me a bit. But I still buy into the conspiracy that this film was nuts on purpose - if played straight it would have just been another Bumblebee. Forgotten, lost, an adaptation that no one cared about.

But does it fail? I had fun watching this and laughing all along. Not quite along with the film, certainly at it, but fun is fun, right? It's an age old "so bad it's good" debate. What does going to the movies mean, really? I liked it a whole lot more than the next movie I saw. That counts for something, right?

I have a lot more thoughts about this. I need to dissect more why I didn't hate this objectively awful movie but generally liked it - somewhat unironically. Like, I liked it for the mess it is, not in spite of, but not in a hateful way. Maybe I'm overthinking it. But you should definitely go watch it.

What do you think of CATS? Do you prefer dogs? Hamsters? Leave a comment or just go on about your life.

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