If no one seemed surprised to learn about the upcoming feature film starring Grumpy Cat — the Arizona-based house pet named Tardar Sauce whose feline dwarfism and underbite have burdened her with both a perpetually grouchy face and Internet celebrity — it’s because Hollywood never passes up a chance to get into bed with a cute new star with a built-in fan base.
Still, while the entertainment industry has always bet that successful books, toys, and video games can work in other formats as well, the road map concerning Internet culture is still being drawn. There have been a few attempts, of course: The web series Annoying Orange has since become a TV series, now in its second season on Cartoon Network, and Justin Halpern got a CBS sitcom out of his Twitter feed, Shit My Dad Says. However, both projects contained something clear to build from and were started by people who actually wanted to get into television beforehand. Tardar Sauce can’t speak, and even if she could, it’s unlikely that her first words would be, “Get me a two-year development deal with Universal, oooooh, and some leftover salmon. Right meow! ”
Grumpy Cat is still a cat. On the Internet, that might make her part of the elite, but that doesn’t mean she’s actually done something, like run for president, serve as a guest mentor on The Voice, or turn a door knob. Meaning her icon status alone will have to hold up over 90 minutes. The meme has no cat-owner relationship to wring laughs from, and in fact offers little context at all; it’s merely a collection of one-liners written by Tardar Sauce’s many online fans. Any Grumpy Cat movie, then, starts with a one-joke character. And in this way, the closest analogs to a Grumpy Cat movie are the dozen or so films based on Saturday Night Live characters. Will Grumpy Cat give us the next Wayne’s World, or are should we brace ourselves for the next It’s Pat?
Like Grumpy Cat, the characters that have been spun off into features films are funny, but they’re funny in the same very specific way every time: They’re all gag and no backstory. The Night at the Roxbury guys can head-bob and hump in unison, but what would they do for the other 89 minutes? Would the Ladies Man be dishing out sex advice for two hours? Would MacGruber just fail to deactivate 60 bombs? (Similarly, will the Grumpy Cat movie be nothing more than an hour and a half of unhappy cat reaction shots?) As a result, the majority of these spinoffs garnered bad reviews and did poorly at the box office (the exceptions being The Blues Brothers and Wayne’s World, which both netted decent reviews and tons of money). The sense is that a character that’s enjoyable for ten minutes isn’t necessarily enjoyable for ten times longer than that. This doesn’t bode well for a certain cat who is used to getting fewer than ten seconds of attention.
There’s one key difference between a movie based on an SNL character and one about Grumpy Cat, though. When Lorne Michaels grants Will Forte the power to make a MacGruber movie, it is less a statement about MacGruber and more one about his faith in Forte. SNL movies might perform poorly and rarely work as fully realized films, but it’s not for a lack of talent; they always contain at least a few super-funny moments owing to the sheer comedic skills of their stars. The best of them even muster stealth genius; MacGruber, for example, hid its hilarity behind its somewhat off-putting broadness, but eventually started to build a cult following and has even inspired sequel talk. Grumpy Cat does not have this level of talent. So where Will Ferrell could redeem scenes in Ladies Man, Superstar, or A Night at the Roxbury by being Will Ferrell, Grumpy Cat will just stare at the camera’s blinking red light. Even if a meme can be a character, that doesn’t mean the cat is a comedian.
Not that anyone involved seems to be asking Tardar Sauce to be one. Broken Road, the producers of the Grumpy Cat movie and such terrible projects as Jack and Jill, Zookeeper, and Knight and Day, are paying Tardar Sauce the big bucks merely to show up and know her lines (i.e., “meow”). Their goal isn’t to make a good movie, it’s to make a movie that kids force their parents to see. That’s why they’re comparing it to Garfield, a very bad film that made a surprising amount of money. (“It’s Garfield but for the Internet age!” an agent has likely said.) Sure, both cats are cranky and not much else, but at least Garfield does stuff like eat lasagna, make fun of Jon, and eat more lasagna. All Grumpy Cat does is keep her eyes open for photographs.
Then again, that’s all she needs to do, as she was hired as much for the poster as the inevitably critically panned movie itself. If a portrait of our unblinking feline friend plastered outside the multiplex succeeds in producing shouts of “Mommy, that’s the kitty from the computer — want!” her job is done.