Away From the Hype: CATS

Sometimes, a movie is released and the hype/controversy surrounding it is too much for the movie to get out from underneath. Sometimes this means we sit down in the cinema with expectations and preconceived notions that we can’t escape.

Away from the Hype is an ongoing series looking at some of these movies years away from their initial release to see if, without all of the window dressing of hype, expectation, and controversy, the movies are actually any good or not.

Keep the Cat in the Bag

When the first trailer for Cats dropped, it was mana from heaven for the terminally online, that most cynical and creative group of people who can whip up a meme in seconds and turn anything into surreal comedy. However, it was somehow impossible to make Cats more surreal than it already was.

It was mind-boggling that anyone had thought this was a good idea: An adaptation of the musical Cats featuring actors mo-capped as cats and starring such diverse talents as Dame Judi Dench, Jason Derulo, Rebel Wilson, Jennifer Hudson, Taylor Swift, and Idris Elba. It’s like someone pitched it to win a bet, and things got out of hand.

Seeing that trailer made me wonder how the movie got past pre-production. Surely when they did the first CGI tests and realised how off-putting it was to have these naked, genital-less cat people with the faces of famous people sort of hovering on their heads, someone should have said that they needed to pull the plug. Or make it fully animated and make them actual cats rather than abominations unto God.

Away From the Hype: CATS
source: Universal Pictures

When the movie was released, I skipped it. A big part of that was because this movie was inexplicably released the same day as Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, and also because deep down I knew that to truly appreciate it, I would need to see it away from the hype.

Cats (2019)


I was not expecting to hate this so much. I thought, from the trailers and other critical reactions, this would be a so bad its good movies like The Room or Troll 2. What I didn’t expect was this relentless assault on my senses.

Sixteen minutes into this, my notes read: This movie is attacking me. It’s giving me no reprieve, mercy, or story.

It’s been two weeks since I watched it, and I’ve finally calmed down enough to write with some form of rationality. Those two weeks though were punctuated by two things: singing “Memory” and asking what the hell a Jellicle is.

The Jellicle issue is really at the forefront of my bad feelings towards this movie. Two songs breathlessly define what a Jellicle cat is, one at the start and one in the middle. They are both just endless lists that illuminate nothing. The word Jellicle is presented throughout as though it is something we should instantly understand, which is fine if the world-building in your story is strong enough to make people understand the term via context clues or a brief explanation. But with Cats, they give you a song defining what Jellicle means that seems to boil down to Jellicle being a word that cats use for cats, only for the song to then start talking about Jellicle Cats, as though Jellicle refers to a type of cat. However, the lyrics do nothing but describe cats in terms of their history, popular culture, and generic cat things e.g.

Can you ride on a broomstick to places far distant?
Familiar with candle, with book and with bell?
Were you Whittington’s friend? The Pied Piper’s assistant?
Have you been an alumnus of heaven or hell?

Are you mean like a minx?
Are you lean like a lynx?
Are you keen to be seen when you’re smelling a rat?
Where you there when the pharaohs commissioned the Sphinx?
If you were and you are, you’re a Jellicle Cat

Nothing about this makes me think that a Jellicle Cat is not just a cat. Just a normal cat.

Away From the Hype: CATS
source: Universal Pictures

Then I thought, maybe Jellicle is the name of their tribe perhaps. The movie opens with our wide-eyed heroine Victoria being tossed onto the street and taken in by these Jellicle Cats. They proceed to sing at her in this weird tuneless forgettable way that every song is presented in this movie save for “Memory”, which is an absolute banger.

These cats who take her in are the Jellicle Cats. It stands to reason then that Jellicle might mean street cats like a Jets and Sharks situation is happening, and we’re going to meet other cat gangs who are going to assault us with a description of what makes them a different kind of cat.

I was wrong. I think.

See, the issue comes when the plot of the movie reveals itself. And I’m using the word plot so lightly that if you blow onto your monitor right now, the word will blow away.

The plot is that during an annual ball, one of the old cats will choose a cat to ascend to the Heaviside Layer and be reborn. To prove your worth for this prize you have to, you guessed it, sing a song. It’s like America’s Got Talent if the judges were Brahma and Anubis.

Now, here’s where my head started to hurt. The ball is called the Jellicle Ball, which occurs during the Jellicle Moon and the choosing of the lucky cat to die and go to heaven is known as the Jellicle Choice. So far, so Jellicle.

However, the first half of the movie is Victoria getting introduced to the competitors of the Jellicle Ball, all of whom are not Jellicle Cats. They’re a St. James Street Cat, a Gumbie Cat, a Glamour Cat, a Train Cat, a Theatre Cat, and a Mystery Cat.

And this brings me back to the original problem again. The word Jellicle is said/sang 128 times in this movie and at no point is it a hundred percent clear what it means.

If you’re going to call the cats Jellicle Cats, call the Ball, Moon, and Choice something else. They seem to have no problems pulling weird names out of their arses throughout the rest of the movie. A movie featuring such characters as Bustopher Jones, Mr. Mistoffelees, Munkustrap, and Jennyanydots has proved it’s got the vocabulary to avoid calling everything a Jellicle Noun.

Away From the Hype: CATS
source: Universal Pictures

This speaks to a massive problem with this movie, which is how frustrating it is. Ignoring the bombardment of the word Jellicle, the movie is a musical composed of utterly forgettable songs. They all sound the same because a majority of them are doing the same thing: introducing a character.

According to the Wikipedia page, there are 20 songs in this movie. Ten of them are introducing characters or describing them. They follow particular patterns in that they have a character be named or name themselves, and then they describe who they are and what they do. And that is it. It’s like going to a corporate function, and the boss makes you do an ice breaker where you stand up, introduce yourself, and share an interesting fact about your life. Only it’s in song, and the song is being sung by weirdly CGI’d cat people amidst, in one case, a swarm of the worst CGI cockroach people ever put on film.

Other than “Memory”, none of the other songs leaves any footprint on you as you watch. They’re all too dull and relentless. They assault you in some cases, or they’re just boring in others.

And the whole thing feels pointless. I didn’t care about any of the characters, and it was instantly apparent who was getting the Jellicle Choice from the moment a particular character appeared on the screen. There are no stakes, no tension, no suspense. The humour is provided mostly by two characters who each have one jokey character trait, i.e.  James Corden’s character is fat, Rebel Wilson’s is clumsy.

The main character, Victoria, is played as a saucer-eyed ingenue by dancer Francesca Hayward. She’s not given anything to do except look amazed at everything and dance during two sequences where the characters stop singing and dance. It’s a reprieve from the songs, but it’s a reprieve in the way that breaking your arm would take your mind off your broken leg. On stage, these balletic sequences are assumedly wonderful but performed by CGI monsters and edited like shit they sit there in the middle of the action like the movie has glitched and needs to be reset.

Away From the Hype: CATS
source: Universal Pictures

In terms of positives, the cast is charming. Even behind all the awful CGI the actors with natural charm and talent shine through especially Taylor Swift, Jennifer Hudson, Idris Elba, Jason Derulo, and Judi Dench. Barring some terrible Cockney accents, Derulo and Swift do well to tap into their music video backgrounds to make their scenes sort of work, forgettable songs aside. These are performers who can move and sing at the same time, so they make it work. They do make me wonder what this would be like if they had filled the cast with similar performers instead of talented people who probably thought Tom Hooper was good for at least an Oscar nomination based on his previous record.

“Memory” is still a banger, and Jennifer Hudson gives it her all when she performs it even though she is polishing silverware on Titanic by the time she gets to her big moment.

I wrote 11 pages of notes for this movie, and I barely cracked the surface of them for this piece, so I’m going to throw in some observations that I feel need saying.

There is a weird inconstancy in the way characters move in this movie. Some move normally, others move like dancers, and others move like cats. So you’ve got James Corden just walking around, the dancers moving with their whole bodies, and then some extras crawling around on the floor.

The clothing the cats wear is strange as some are naked in an incredibly unsettling way, some wear cat-sized sneakers, some wear clothes that have oversized parts like giant buttons on a coat that otherwise fits a cat, and Rebel Wilson at one point unzips her skin to reveal a showgirl outfit underneath. Actually, at two points as that is first done during a song and dance number, and then happens again in another scene so she can escape from the villain. Apparently, it’s just something this kind of cat can do and not just a trait that exists in the fantastical musical scenes.

Away From the Hype: CATS
source: Universal Pictures

And that is as much as I can write about Cats.

Final Thoughts – Cats

Nietzsche said that when you stare into the abyss, be aware that the abyss sometimes stares back. This movie is the abyss, and when the cats are singing directly into the camera, it definitely feels as though the abyss is staring back.

Especially with ending. After the villain is defeated and the winner of the Jellicle Choice is sent off in a flying chandelier to die, Judi Dench as Old Deuteronomy turns to the camera and intones a very long song about how you, the audience, should address a cat.

The song goes on and on, with long pauses between verses, and when it feels like it has ended like Austin Powers peeing, it starts up again.

It perfectly encapsulates the awfulness of this movie, a movie that deserved every piece of criticism and that, away from the hype, is still terrible to the point that it feels as though you are being punished for watching it. The final song in the movie is a character basically telling you off for not talking to cats properly in a song that has no relation to anything else we’ve just seen and gives us nothing.

Away from the hype, this movie is a grotesque experience that needs to be seen to be believed, but at the same time, I can’t in good conscience advise anyone to watch it ever.

It’s not often that I finish a movie by telling it loudly to “Fuck off!” but with this movie, it managed to push me over the edge with its final line.

After spending two hours wondering what a Jellicle Cat was, the movie ends with this line of dialogue: “I truly believe you are a Jellicle Cat…a Dellicle Cat”.

In my rage, I was ready to Google what a dellicle cat was, and then I realised that, like most of the things in this terrible movie, I wouldn’t get an answer, and even if I did, it wouldn’t help.

Have you seen Cats? What did you think? Let us know in the comments below!

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