The Jellicle Defense: Why ‘Cats’ is Actually a Triumph
While making jabs at everyone from Leo DiCaprio to Jeffrey Epstein, Ricky Gervais’ opening monologue at the Golden Globes had to include the film Cats. “But no one saw that,” said Gervais. “And the reviews! Shocking. I saw one that said, ‘This is the worst thing to happen to cats since dogs.'”
Gervais wasn’t kidding about the reviews. There are many bad ones, with complaints various and never-ending. The unnaturalness of the CGI fur, the cats lack of genitalia, and the film’s lack of a story line, to name a few. These accusations in particular are unjust and, if you know anything about the original musical, unfounded. This reviewer is here to write a Jellicle Defense.
Why have I chosen this posthumous moment? The film has already been expelled from most theaters, and that’s exactly what has my goat – or, cat. Bad reviews have curtailed a release that deserves cat calls – not petulant hisses. To prove it, I’ll tackle the claims one by one and explain the impetus behind the least successful film of 2019. So, without further ado, here’s a bit from Washington’s Top News, calling Cats – ah, how clever – a ‘Cat-astrophe’:
Rather than build a character arc for the feline heroine, we get two hours of random character introductions…in Cats, we meet new characters for the entire movie — and they all have increasingly annoying names.
Jason Fraley, Washington’s Top News
This reviewer seems to know the musical’s origins, referencing Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1981 production and the book of T.S. Eliot poems on which the show is based. And yet he still complains! Let me remind those who know and educate those who don’t – random introductions, characters with annoying names? That’s the show.
Cats is one of the few movie musicals not guilty of decimating its origin show.
I’d like to send Jason Fraley of Washington’s Top News a VHS tape of the first Cats filmed in 1998. You wanna see a story with no character arc, Jason? That’s the original show. The film Cats inserted a plot into the slew of introductions – each cat is campaigning to become the “Jellicle Choice” and must prove their worthiness in song. On stage, you won’t get any of that obligatory dialogue. The cats start singing and you’re locked in for a good two hours.
And I’ll ship him Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. Mongojerrie, Rumpelteazer, Jennyanydots? Those are the names, courtesy of T.S. Eliot. The new Cats film could have easily done a disservice to fans of the show, to Eliot and to Lloyd Webber by cutting songs and changing, well, everything. Instead, it enhanced what was already there. Cats is one of the few movie musicals not guilty of decimating its origin show.
Here’s a word from The Pitt News (a name that expresses something of their caliber), pointed at Cats director Tom Hooper:
The arrogance of Hooper to cheapen a classic musical with A-list celebrities, to hijack it with recoil-worthy CGI. He and his band of cronies got exactly what they deserved — a $70 million loss at the box office, or, as I’m sure he’ll rename it, the litter box office.
Nena Hagen, The Pitt News
The musical talent of our Cats stars is arguable to some. Did Taylor Swift belong in the film? Was Jason Derulo’s performance mediocre? Doesn’t matter. Because what we can say, with absolute certainty, is that everyone in the cast can sing.
It’s a sad time in entertainment history. These days you can’t expect everyone in a musical film to not be tone deaf. But in this film adaptation every cat cast, Jellicle or otherwise, sings well!
If a film’s pandering, it makes Taylor Swift the lead.
While some view the addition of Taylor Swift as pandering, I see it as principled casting. If a film’s pandering, it makes Taylor Swift the lead. Instead, Swift gets a small role worthy of her vocal style and we have Francesca Hayward, a stunningly talented ballerina, as the newly characterized Victoria.
And I’ll let no one breathe a word against Jennifer Hudson as Grizabella. She sang “Memory”, I became emotional. She gets five paws up from me.
I’m not sure what to say about the supposedly ‘recoil-worthy’ CGI. How should the cats look? Like actual cats? Frankly, I’d be insulted. The absence of cat-humans from Cats would be a big middle finger to every broadway makeup artist since 1981 andto acclaimed choreographer Gillian Lynne.
Finally, a ridiculously and frankly concerning report from The Guardian:
Cats turns out to be a nauseous orgy throbbing with the energy of a hundred horny cat-people, thrusting and licking, rubbing and lapping, ferociously randy despite a complete lack of genitals.
Catherine Shoard, The Guardian
Someone’s been reading too many bestiality books. Now, I get what you’re saying, Catherine. But cats are somewhat sensual. Rubbing, lapping – that’s what they do. What you call an orgy is actually the dramatization of cat behavior through ballet and romantic music.
Not once during my viewing of cats did I anticipate a ‘turned on’ audience (although I’ll admit to a bit of a crush on Robbie Fairchild). Nor did I turn and find, to my horror, my seat partners necking in the darkness. Catherine, my friend, I think you need time off.
Would we have liked to see the underparts of all the dancing cats? Would that have helped the Broadway production win more awards than it did?
On the subject of romance, you’ll find that Cats has a simply lovely addition to its original arc-less plot. Francesca Hayward’s Victoria shares a non-physical love story with Laurie Davidson’s Mr. Mistoffelees, a charmingly shy male cat who formerly existed only to make Old Deutoronomy (Dame Judi Dench) reappear. It’s moving, precious, and not at all erotic.
And let’s address the lack of genitalia, shall we? Because this complaint baffles me. Would we have liked to see the underparts of all the dancing cats? Would that have helped the Broadway production win more awards than it did (the Tony and the Laurence Oliver best musical awards among them)? Should Disney’s The Aristocats have done the same? No. So, why add genitalia to this movie? Why even ask?
Catherine from The Guardian should turn to her colleagues Arifa Akbar and Lyndsey Winship, because they know what they’re talking about. If you know anything about theatre, you know Cats to be well-casted, well-choreographed, and well-visualized.
Can we appreciate the skill required to write an entire musical score…from some random T.S. Eliot poems?
The scenery alone deserves rampant praise. After all, Tom Hooper could have used a lazy recreation of the junkyard stage traditional to Cats productions. Instead we have old Hollywood marquees, Egyptian inferences, and a milk bar. Wonderfully creative and, quite frankly, brilliant.
Cats even uses visuals to help the songs along. Lloyd Webber wrote music to T.S. Eliot’s exact poems. So, the lyrics are not the most evocative. But can we appreciate the skill required to write an entire musical score with melodic themes, genre variance, and an overall plot…from some random T.S. Eliot poems? If you appreciate that, you’ll appreciate the film translation.
It’s about inclusion, second chances and, yes, cats.
I’ll conclude my case for the Jellicles with a little feline ferocity: If reviewers find Cats poorly conceived, badly performed, or plain-and-simply kinky… They might not have the comprehension skills required for musical theatre. God help them if they attend any opera or ballet! They’ll find nothing but screaming mimi’s and randy woodland nymphs.
I say to readers and reviewers everywhere – check your facts, find one of the few movie theaters still showing Cats, and try again. I think you’ll find a beautiful film, full of talented artisans and relevant themes. It’s about inclusion, second chances and, yes, cats.
Put on your theatrical glasses, and you might just applaud at the end. Make the right Jellicle choice. Support films that don’t screw the stage.