Something you know to be irrefutable fact if you’ve ever seen the musical or even just heard any single one of its songs other than “Memory”: Cats is nuts. Moreover, you know that to render the very same Cats in the form of a studio feature film in 2019 is an absolutely mad undertaking. Light-years separate the sort of narrative conducive to Hollywood filmmaking and the (and I use this word as liberally as Jellicles define the criteria for their self-ascribed cohort) story of Cats. This to the point that the show’s origins in the poetry of T.S. Eliot have made it something of a curiosity even in the more kinetically inclined medium of musical theater.
I say all this to prepare any would-be viewer of the Cats movie for the inevitability that it will no doubt eschew your expectations of linear storytelling, comprehensive world-building, and even the basic sensory experiences that typically accompany an hour and change in the company of the big screen. In lieu of whatever you anticipate from your trips to the theater, Cats‘ first act will leave you curious, confused, and maybe even a little ill at ease. But 20 minutes into Cats—or maybe it’s 30, or 40, or two hours, or nine days; who the hell can tell?—a switch will flip, and you’ll come to some vague understanding of what you’re being beckoned into.
Whether you then begin to enjoy the movie on its own terms, this I cannot reasonably promise. But I can say with all sincerity that upon finally meeting Cats face to face, somewhere past the introduction of the wayfaring Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson) and the sage Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench), I was dazzled. Smitten. Entranced, enchanted, and empowered by the illegible recipe that bequeathed this cinematic feast unto mine eyes, ears, and heart.
Even from this point forward, Cats remains winningly inscrutable. The sporadic breaths taken between longer-than-you’d-expect musical numbers about varied Jellicle joys will allow you time to (probably out loud) ask the inevitable question: What is going on? Instead of telling you the answer, Cats encourages your imagination. We get just enough hints about the Jellicle Ball, our furry friends’ lives outside of the centerpiece Egyptian Theater, and the nature of the ever-mysterious Heaviside Layer to kick off proverbial writing prompts in our heads; admittedly, this arrangement may breed anything between heated derision and fiery excitement. Either way, you get something hot.
Straight to the end, Cats stays aflame in more ways than one, ignited by increasingly enjoyable performances—Idris Elba as the dastardly Macavity and Ian McKellen as the infirmed Gus stand out—and musical numbers (OH! WHY! I NEVER! WAS THERE EVER! et al) and a consistently jarring relationship with its own sexuality. (I could explain, but… well… actually, I don’t believe I can.) But more than anything else, what keeps this five-alarm fire burning is the sheer fact that, from any given minute to the next, you won’t quite believe your eyes.
Making matters all the more intriguing is that Cats was born of a director who’s become synonymous with boilerplate Academy Awards fare, and surely one who didn’t set out to deliver some parodic unraveling of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s 1981 musical. If there’s a single wink hidden in Cats‘ 110 minutes, it averted my glance. And in its earnest delivery of unknowable bombast and unfathomable text, Cats earned so earnest a place in my heart.
I’d go so far to say that I’m moved by Cats. As giddy as I was over the vexing experience of being stared down by a feline Judi Dench for way longer than any studio note would rightfully allow, I could not for the life of me count this as a con against Cats or a laugh at its expense. Instead, I consider it another testament to its beauty, along with every of Victoria’s (Francesca Hayward) sensual flutters and Macavity’s mysterious poofs, and the dramatic festivity of the Magical Mr. Mistofelees (Laurie Davison) finally making good on his superlative.
These instances, one and all, are indeed nuts, and no less so when contextualized together. But Cats invites you to love them, and it, and whatever cultivar of joy you’re endowed with as a result. This I find moving and beautiful: the enthused will to be. If Cats is about anything—and I’m not going to bet one way or the other—it’s about that. Cats being themselves, and simply being. Gumbie cats, curious cats, theater cats, mystery cats, Jellicle cats (and, if you’ll submit to a reminder: not dogs). For some reason, this works for me. I don’t know. It’s nuts. It’s Cats. It’s hard to explain. I sprinted home from the screening and I’m nauseated. Review over. Minus half a star for weight jokes.
Featured Image: Universal Pictures
Mica Arbeiter is a Jellicle person. Follow them on Twitter @micarbeiter.