Why I’m Excited About CATS

Better CATS' side of the Uncanny Valley than THE LION KING's.

By most standards, Cats is not a very good musical. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music is, save for a couple standout songs, repetitive and annoying. T.S. Eliot’s text, written decades before Webber wrote a single note, has no real story, as it’s literally a collection of poems. No character really gets more than a single song of development, and most can be summed up in a sentence or two. And of course, the whole show is performed by actors in skin-tight cat costumes, which for many inspires deep discomfort.

Tom Hooper’s film adaptation will likely bear the same issues. Based on the trailer, it appears the movie will use additional dialogue to drape a stronger story arc over the musical numbers, but there’s only so much one can do with this material. The music will be the same, more or less, performed by a cast of movie stars and celebrities who may or may not have the pipes of Broadway singers. And the movie is essentially pulling the CGI equivalent of the show where costumes are concerned, with technically well-executed but conceptually off-putting human-cat hybrids. Plus, it’ll surely bear Tom Hooper’s predilection for bizarre, unmotivated directorial choices, and the only people who like those are Academy voters.

I agree with all these criticisms. They’re valid and accurate and again, by most standards, the movie probably won’t be very good. But like the show, the movie clearly isn’t aiming for those standards, and in that sense, those criticisms kind of don’t matter. Some may even prove to be positive attributes. Cats is going for something rarely seen in mainstream cinema these days, and something that I’m genuinely excited to see in hundred-million-dollar-budget big-screen action.

Nobody goes to see Cats for the story. It’s all about the spectacle. As far as musicals go, Cats is pure theatricality: an opportunity for designers and choreographers to show off in the most ridiculous of settings. That’s not for everyone, certainly, and it’d be a horrible state of affairs if all musicals did the same, but there’s room for that kind of show. There’s also room for that kind of movie, and what excites me about this December’s Cats is how hard it appears to lean into that sense of spectacle. Everything in the trailer is heightened and a little bit insane, from the character and set designs to the colours and lighting to the performances themselves. So far, it looks dynamic and gorgeous, at times even evoking a kind of high-budget, uncanny-valley 1950s musical, and I’m fascinated to see whether the film reflects that.

Dance musicals are something of a lost art in cinema nowadays. For whatever reason, they’ve faded out, replaced by fast cutting, naturalism, and visual tricks. Moreover, people just don’t seem to take dance seriously, outside the dance world - they can’t appreciate work that celebrates body and movement for its own sake, or tells story through physicality. Dance movies are widely considered a "lesser" genre; the idea of going to a dance show is laughable for many people; interpretive dance is mostly a punchline onscreen (that one episode of It’s Always Sunny acting as a rare exception). One of the few recent films to truly explore storytelling through physical performance is Gaspar Noe’s Climax, but that hardly reached a wide audience. Dance is one of the purest forms of expressive symbolism we have at our disposal, both on stage and on screen. It saddens me that it’s shrugged off by a public (and a snarky Film Twitter) that should be able to appreciate the history of the musical genre and its theatrical roots better than this.

It’s curious to see the Cats trailer drop the same week as Disney’s much-vaunted photorealistic remake of The Lion King. Both are cat-themed, both are musicals to one degree or another, both are based on extremely successful properties, and both feature a pervasive use of computer-generated visual effects. And somehow, despite their diametrically opposed approaches to character design - human dancers with weird CGI fur on one hand, unexpressive but photoreal lions on the other - both have been met with widespread derision.
Cats also bears a remarkable contrast with Hooper’s previous musical Les Miserables. With its committedly handheld cinematography and naturalistic on-set singing, Les Mis aimed for a sense of realism that itself was off-putting and strange, given its grandiose and theatrical source material. Compared to that movie, Cats feels almost like an abstract art film. There’s no “right” way to do musicals, and there’s definitely room for this approach.

Personally, I’d far rather see a movie designed like Cats than one designed like The Lion King (2019). The characters might be weird to look at, but at least they can fucking emote; at least its characters can tell their single-song stories with some quantum of passion. Imagine for a moment a live-action remake of The Lion King that took a more Cats-like approach. There’s a perfectly good stage musical based on the movie right there already; why not use that show’s additional songs, and its distinctive visual design language, to make a remake that expanded on the original and actually used actors’ performances? The degree of CGI usage is up to you to imagine, but I would contend that any movie even approaching the stage show’s lithe physically stylised animals would be significantly more engaging than the dead-eyed monstrosity we actually got.

Again, all the criticisms of Cats are on-point, though many have presented them in a predetermined, unnecessarily mean-spirited way they’d been revving up for months. The weird character design just isn’t a negative point for me - the bizarre costumes has always been part of the show's appeal, and it's hard to imagine the movie working any other way. Sure, it’s probably an overuse of CGI where makeup could’ve worked, but if it enables the choreography to shine through, I’m in favour. I’m fully prepared to catch flak for this unpopular opinion, and I’ll be as irritated as anyone else if it’s both as bad and as successful as something like The Greatest Showman. However it turns out, though, Cats is shooting for a spectacular stylistic gamble - and I'll always be excited to see that.