By Beth Binkley
When Cats came into theaters on Dec. 20, 2019, it seemed as though everyone and their mother had something bad to say about it, as though its score of 20% on Rotten Tomatoes didn’t provide any clue to how it might be received by the average viewer. And while I can’t lie and protest that it was a good film by any means, I have a feeling that the reasons behind the casual viewer's disappoint might be different than my own. Honestly, I have thought about this movie way too much since seeing it for the first time.
To begin, the music in this movie is not what makes it unwatchable. At least, not most of it. (I’m looking at you, Taylor, and your horrible British accent). No, for me, the key factor that made my experience seeing it so atrocious was the blatant lack of dialogue explaining, well, anything that was happening plot-wise. For while there were indeed scenes where the cats were simply talking to one another, they were extremely brief, meaningless and bereft of clarification.
If you did, however, pay any amount of attention to what was being sung about, you might have picked up on the word “Jellicle” a few too many times to count. You may now be expecting me to explain to you the lore behind this term, and oh, how I wish I could. Unfortunately, though, there is little information to be found on the origins of the term, other than that it refers to the “type” of cat that all of the characters identify as within their universe. This lack of thought is exactly what I’m trying to explain about the film; nothing within it has any meaning.
This statement can be backed by a number of disappointments found throughout the movie, but I’ll start with the song which first introduced a character directly, “The Old Gumbie Cat.” In this song, we see Rebel Wilson in full-on orange tabby cat makeup, dancing with roaches and unzipping her…(fursuit? Skin?)… as she sings about herself. Considering that the two songs preceding this number gave the storyline no context, the theater I was seeing it in seemed to sit back in relief. And, of course it did, for at this point, the viewer may think something along the lines of, “Okay, they’re finally giving the characters introductions. Now we’re getting to it.” The viewer might have reason to think this, too, until every other song played throughout the rest of the movie reveals to the audience that the entire film consists of introductions only.
And, oh boy, is that a great way to sum up the disaster as a whole. Every song from this track and on consists of a new cat coming onto the scene and introducing itself. Some characters have distinctive personality traits, such as Old Deuteronomy who is seemingly the wise, well-respected leader, and Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat, who—you guessed it—overwatches a railway which has nothing to do with the plot otherwise. Some of the others, however, are just particularly sneaky or mean. So why dedicate a whole number to them?
That’s a question I may never know the answer to. And yet, just as I was about to burst a blood vessel from the sheer redundancy of it all at my showing of the film, something about the score changed. Suddenly, and notably late into the film, Jennnifer Hudson who had not, up until this point, had any distinguishable relevance to the plot aside from sulking in the background--came into full focus with the infamous song, “Memory.”
This is the point where I, and everyone else in the theater, collectively gave up on taking it seriously and busted out sob-laughing. From the snot dripping from Hudson’s nose to the surprisingly well-supported four-minute serenade she provided, no one could seem to hold it in any longer. Recently, I’ve seen some opinions floating around on the Internet arguing that her performance was outright bad, but I have to disagree and say that it was the complete opposite. Her performance was actually just moving in a way that was so ridiculously out of tune with the previous tracks that, unfortunately, it couldn’t even be taken seriously.
And from there, people left the theater. Soon it was me, the few friends I had arrived with, and about three or four other groups of people. We stayed because we had paid to be there, of course, but at one point I looked over to see one of my friends crying tears of what appeared to be confusion and emptiness. Our friend group had all agreed to see the movie together because it was so notoriously unpleasant. And yet, it seemed that when faced with the reality of a film awful beyond comprehension, we crumbled.
I could go on for pages and pages more about how obviously rushed the production was or how strange the casting process appeared to be, but there would be no point. The film already lost over $70 million in the box office, so one more civilian complaint is useless as it stands now. Though, I still won’t ever be able to mentally recover from the haunting point during the film in which another friend of mine leaned over to me, pointed to a cat that was out of the camera’s focus, and said, “That cat still has human ears.”