Rarely does a movie create a buzz like the one surrounding Cats, which I saw on opening night. OK, get your jokes out of the way now—how you want to offer me your condolences, how you wouldn’t accept a sack of cash to see the film yourself, how you [insert “clever” cat joke here]. Along with the snarky comments from the ticket-buying public, there has been an overwhelmingly negative critical reaction, so much so that articles are being written about how bad other articles say the movie is. There’s even advice about what kind of cannabis you should pair to enhance—or endure—the movie.
So the knives are out for this star-studded, $125 million movie adaptation of a warhorse of a musical that opened on Broadway in 1982.
Frankly, I didn’t care at all about the movie until I heard all the negative buzz. Sure, I saw the nonsensical movie trailer in which actors’ faces were somehow CGI’ed onto furry humanoid bodies. And I remembered seeing the play on Broadway as a kid, and how that torch song was catchy. But until the massive pile-on of meanness directed toward the film, I cared not one whit about the movie. So, thank you, overwhelming chorus of haters, for getting me to go to the movies on a school night. As the lights went down in the theater, I thought how lucky I was to be able to engage with a work of art in which I had no idea what to expect.
Even though that was almost the last time I felt lucky for the next 110 minutes, I’m here to tell you that there are shiny bright moments amid the cluster of junk that is the movie Cats. (You just have to wade through the murky storyline about how all the “Jellicle cats” come together once a year so that one cat can be selected to ascend upward in a hot air balloon and be reborn into a better life. So, happy Christmas, here’s your Jesus metaphor, America!) There’s the absolutely luminous presence of Victoria, the abandoned kitten in the play whose role was expanded in the movie script as a cohesive device. She is played by ballerina Francesca Hayward, so her prancing is a graceful joy to watch. There’s also Victoria’s theme song, a minor anthem about looking for belonging that’s sung in the general direction of Grizabella, the seen-better-days cat played by Jennifer Hudson. So anytime Victoria is on-screen, there’s hope.
Unfortunately, with such a wide-ranging cast, the movie’s plot soon devolves into a series of character sketches of various London-based felines. There’s Rebel Wilson as a lazy housecat, James Corden as a food-obsessed Tom, Shakespearean actor Ian McKellen as a stage-door cat, Jason Derulo as a ladies-man cat, Idris Elba as a shady, bullying cat. And Judi Dench as Old Deuteronomy, a sort of wise old cat. It’s...a lot.
The opening night had the feeling of a real event, between Star Wars–costumed fanboys and -girls in the lobby trooping to their premiere and fellow Cats moviegoers inside the theater giggling throughout the film, culminating in one woman’s hyperventilation fit during the denouement. (The cast assembles in Trafalgar Square and watches as Judi Dench breaks the fourth wall and lectures us in the audience about cat etiquette.) Anyway, here is the thing that occurred to me as I made my way out: This might be exactly the film we need (if not deserve) for 2019’s winter holiday.
We live in a divided time, a dark tunnel of fractious politics and uncertain opportunity and a chasm of communication so profound that we can’t even agree on what’s fact or fake. Into this fight-waiting-to-happen-at-the-holiday-dinner-table ambles Cats, the movie, ready to give everyone in the family something to carp about. Your mom can say that she thought Rebel Wilson chomping on a chorus line of cockroaches made her queasy. Your kid brother will say the part where the cats are held hostage on a barge makes no sense (unless he followed the cannabis advice, in which case he will just be confused about everything). Your husband will say Taylor Swift had a strange British accent. Your dad will say he thought it was all nonsense and won’t ever complain about your putting on It’s a Wonderful Life at home ever again.
And you just might be glad that some kooky overblown kitsch fest of a flick could bring your family together, even if it was with complaining groans. And among your tribe’s cat jokes and predictions of how much money this film will lose, I dare you not to find yourself, like I did, humming “Memory” as you walk to the car.