Tom Hooper said something at the premiere of Cats that I have not been able to get out of my head. It was after the cast, a truly eclectic ensemble that includes dancers like Les Twins, acting legends like Judi Dench, and pop stars like Taylor Swift, had been introduced. Andrew Lloyd Webber, the composer of the blockbuster Broadway musical on which the movie was based, had come onstage to deliver what sounded suspiciously like a disavowal of responsibility for whatever it was we were about to watch. Then Hooper, who’d worked 36 hours straight in order to finish the feature the day before, took the microphone back to deliver one last message to the audience. The message was that he believed that the movie he directed was “about the perils of tribalism and the power of kindness.” The lights went down, and Cats began.
Here is the thing about Cats: The most galaxy-brained, edibles-enhanced reading in the world would not end with the conclusion that it is about the perils of tribalism. That is such an extraordinary statement that I’ve spent the stretch since hearing it wavering between two theories. In the first, Hooper, having white-knuckled his way through ragged months of overseeing the application of digital fur to famous faces, genuinely managed to convince himself that there was true relevance to the $95 million musical he had completed. In the second, the director, overcome by an existential crisis after having commissioned a giant garbage can for James Corden to dive into while playing a cat named Bustopher Jones, decided to just start making this claim out loud to see if anyone would challenge him, a trial balloon to test if he’d actually been dreaming this whole time.
Cats is not a metaphor. It is not an allegory. The whole point of Cats is that it is entirely, improbably on the level. It is a musical about cats who sing songs about themselves, competing for the grand prize of being chosen to go to the Heaviside layer, where they’ll be reborn into the life they’ve always wanted (though I harbor a secret belief that it might actually be a kind of Midsommar Ättestupa situation). They also dance! Onstage they are played by actors in tufty leotards and makeup; in the movie the actors have been given computer-generated fur, expressive ears, and highly mobile tails, effects that look unfailingly disturbing. Sometimes they walk and talk like humans, and other times they crawl around and nuzzle each other like felines. I know what you’re thinking — is this a sex thing? Look, it is not not a sex thing. Mostly, though, it’s like an acting exercise allowed to grow to an incomprehensible scale, and then given lyrics drawn from a selection of light poems by T.S. Eliot.
To assess Cats as good or bad feels like the entirely wrong axis on which to see it. It is, with all affection, a monstrosity. Hooper devoted his 2012 take on Les Misérables to the proposition that movie musicals are best experienced through handheld camerawork, uvula-friendly close-ups, and live singing for greater realism (or something). He repeats this approach in Cats, a property designed to repel realism with every fiber of its being, with the added complication of dance numbers. These he shoots from various angles while only every once in a while settling on one that allows the audience to appreciate the choreography by seeing whole bodies in motion. Dancers do make up a solid swath of the cast, including the closest thing that the movie has to a lead — Francesca Hayward, whose Victoria the kitten provides our entry point into the world of the Jellicles. (The cats in Cats call themselves Jellicle cats, though what this means, like so much of Cats, remains a mystery).
Not everyone can sing, not everyone can dance, and not everyone can, well, be famous. The film attempts to work around different cast members’ strengths with varying results. Ian McKellen, as Gus The Theatre Cat, does wonderful things with a lesser song. (McKellen, who also pauses in the middle of a sentence to casually butt his head against a pillar in a truly tabbyish fashion, wins the Oscars of Cats.) Rebel Wilson, as Jennyanydots, performs a number that mostly involves falling down, but that’s saved by the late arrival of a cockroach chorus line. (There are two cats who can do magic, and two cats who appear to be there to enable fat jokes, and both are excessive.) Taylor Swift, as Bombalurina, arrives late in the movie for the sequence that feels the most like a music video. Australian ballet dancer Steven McRae does tap for “Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat,” and it, I will be honest, slaps, though twice during it the camera pulls back for an extra wide shot that turns the performers into dots on the horizon, as though taunting the audience for wanting to actually see what’s going on.
There’s never been much by way of narrative to Cats, and the little bit that’s been added for the screen (Hooper shares a screenplay credit with Lee Hall) is dire and involves cat kidnappings and a barge out on the Thames. It’s not enough, anyway, to prevent the film from seriously bogging down in the middle when the barrage of introductory songs becomes too much. Which frees the mind to wander to more important questions — like, for instance, that it makes sense that Skimbleshanks had to wear shoes for his number, but then why does Bombalurina? Are the coats that some of the cats, like Macavity (Idris Elba) and Old Deuteronomy (Dench), wear actually made from the skin of other cats? And if so, does this mean that Jennyanydots, who at one point unzips herself out of a full-body fur suit, is a kind of Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs type? Why would you ever put “Beautiful Ghosts,” the underwhelming new addition that Swift and Webber wrote for this adaptation, right up against “Memory”? Is the implication that Grizabella, played by Jennifer Hudson, became an outcast because she did sex work intentional, and if so, what does sex work for cats entail and why are the other cats so goddamn judgmental about it?
These are all valid questions, urgent questions, questions that remain unanswered to this day. But when Hudson, whose character lurks unhappily at the edges of the Jellicle gathering until she’s welcomed back into the fold by Victoria, starts in on the musical’s most, and arguably only, famous song, I was enraptured. When she gets to the big, bellowing key change that is Cats’ main reason for being, a tear or two may have slipped out. There is something magical about the simple fact that this movie exists, in all its obscene, absurd wonder, its terrible filmmaking choices and bursts of jaw-dropping talent. It doesn’t need to be timely to be an artifact of its time — a movie about nothing but song and dance and, most important of all, about cats.