Cats is bad. The one-time Oscar hopeful lost its studio about 70 million dollars and swept this year’s Razzie Awards with six wins, including Worst Picture — and that was before the “butthole cut” was confirmed to exist. But does the confoundingly terrible movie musical transcend its abysmal Rotten Tomatoes rating, as so many Jellicles hope to transcend into the Heaviside layer, and become so bad it’s good? No. Except, that shouldn’t stop you from renting it, now that it’s available on VOD for a mere $5.99.
Tom Hooper’s attempt at taking Cats from stage to screen is, disappointingly, too boring to qualify for so-bad-it’s-good status. Films that earn that distinction, like Plan 9 From Outer Space or Battlefield Earth, are usually comprehensible-enough narratives told with embarrassingly poor execution. Most often, that means unconvincing special effects and over-the-top acting.
Cats is poorly executed, but it’s also impossible to engage with as a straightforward piece of storytelling. Eventually, it might achieve a similar cult following to that of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, another film adaptation of an off-kilter musical. However, Rocky Horror makes lightyears’ more sense and has the built-in advantages of better songs, cosplayable characters and learnable choreography. Whatever ironic fandom Cats is accruing for itself appreciates the movie for a very different reason.
It should be noted that the audience ought not place too much blame on the Cats performers. Where many gleefully reviled movies feature plenty of scene chewing, for the most part the actors in Cats are doing pretty earnest work. Jason Derulo as Rum Tum Tugger knows exactly what kind of movie he wants to be in. Veritable legends Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Judi Dench try their level best to do something of substance with the material. Rebel Wilson and James Corden, in badly interpreted comic relief roles that mostly make fun of their weight, are legitimately uncomfortable to watch. That — and almost everything else that’s wrong with Cats — seems to have much more to do with fascinatingly bad decisions made by the production team.
Ask any fan of the Broadway show: Cats is about dance and spectacle. The movie suffers because it gets those two elements so wrong. Things looked promising at first (thus the awards buzz). Hooper cast famous dancers, Francesca Hayward and the Bourgeois twins and recruited Andy Blankenbuehler, the Tony-winning choreographer from Hamilton. Rather than showcase their talents, the film is so oddly framed and cut, viewers can hardly make out their contributions. To make matters much worse, Hooper thought it necessary to digitize the dance moves to make them appear more complicated and impressive than they would naturally be. The final effect is so depressingly underwhelming that for the dancers’ sakes, one wants to give them a do-over and record it with an iPhone.
The digital effects are truly the film’s downfall. The play’s costumes are nothing more than leotards, heavy makeup, and big tufts of fur, but they work. The movie version probably would have been fine (well, closer to fine) had it stayed with that iconic look. Instead, the cats and their environment are rendered in such a second-draft way, the most fun one can have watching Cats is to try and catch all the worst offenses. Apparently it was no one’s job to decide what size the cats should be. One minute, they’re slightly smaller than an adult person. The next, they’d fit in a shoebox. What’s skin and what’s fur is completely arbitrary and that’s to say nothing of those human noses, hands and feet. The backgrounds are so one dimensional and unimportant, they appear to have been copied and pasted from Google image searches. The most egregious sin of all is that they took Idris Elba — one of the classiest and most attractive men in the world — and turned him into something that’s at once so disturbing and unintentionally hilarious, we’ll never be able to look at him the same way again.
Cats also gifts us with a scene in which McKellen laps what might be liquor out of a bowl while standing completely prostrate, so there’s that. Since you can’t really spoil a movie with no point, it’s not a spoiler to say that Cats ends with Dench talking nonsense to the audience for so long that you’ll think someone forgot to yell cut. But by then, you’ll have gotten what you wanted for your five bucks. Not enjoyment or even laughs, per se, but a strange look behind the curtain.
Cats is bad and not in a so-bad-it's-good way, but it's still worth renting on VOD for these reasons.