By now, we all know about the flaming dumpster fire that is Tom Hooper’s Cats. With a disastrous $6.5 million opening weekend, critical scorn normally reserved for snuff films, and a world cheerfully kicking it while it’s down – and all of it opposite a Star Wars movie no less – its fate has been sealed as arguably the biggest cinematic disaster of the decade.
And to be sure, it deserves every inch of that treatment. While it may (and likely will) find a long-term home as a cult film, Universal clearly had something in mind for it besides a midnight double bill with Plan Nine from Outer Space.
I’m not here to go over its copious failures again. Suffice it to say, it’s every inch as bad as its reputation suggests: a hypnotically awful disaster whose compulsive watchability matches that of the Joe Theisman injury. It’s hard to look away from something so horrific.
The question on everyone’s lips is, how? What possessed a major studio and a huge number of talented to people to invest their time and money in a project so utterly and completely misguided?
Hindsight is 20/20, and from the earliest trailers, it was apparent that something had gone terribly awry. But on paper, at least, it looked like a solid bet. Cats was based on one of the most successful musicals of all time, running for 21 years in London and 18 on Broadway. Director Tom Hooper had won an Oscar for The King’s Speech, and delivered a well-regarded adaption of another 80s stage blockbuster, Les Miserables in 2012. That movie grossed over $400 million worldwide on the way to picking up 8 Oscar nominations (including one for Hugh Jackman) and 3 wins (most famously for Anne Hathaway).
There was no reason to think he couldn’t do the same with Cats. That, in turn, convinced Universal to invest upwards of $100 million in the production and score the kind of acting talent that most movies only dream of.
Which in turn raised expectations.
Which in turn made any flaws all the more prominent, as well as papering over the significant challenges that came with adapting this particular play: challenges that Hooper didn’t have to face with Les Mis and which ultimately turned this film into the rolling death train that it became. We’ve identified four specific factors that the filmmakers either ignored or attempted to address in the worst manner possible, which helps explain how we got to this point. Let’s break them down one by one.
1. We Don’t Need No Stinking Plot!
Les Mis is based on a classic work of literature, and as such can lean on traditional storytelling as a foundation. Its characters have specific motivation. They grow and change. They respond to events and attempt to shape them as best they can. The fact that they’re singing about it most of the time doesn’t change the fact that things happen and events follow a logical progression to an identifiable climax.
Cats, on the other hand, is more cabaret than story: basically as a bunch of T.S. Eliot poems set to music. The single sliver of a plot entails the selection of a cat to “ascend” and be reborn as a higher life form: a wafer-thin bit of hand waving to provide the context of unity for the musical numbers.
Doing anything more elaborate violates the core idea, as various cats introduce themselves and sing about who they are before giving way to the next “contestant” for the promised karmic upgrade. And yet such abstraction proves a hard sell in and of itself, especially in the movies which tend to need a little more meat on the narrative bones to keep people interested. (Certainly, there are exceptions, but they tend to be a lot cheaper and don’t need to sell the Christmas crowd on their charms.)
Cats makes some attempts to spin stew out of that oyster, but it’s hard going from the beginning. Without a stronger plot, the filmmakers must sell us on spectacle… which is where the movie goes from stiff creative challenge to breathtaking disaster.
2. Theater Is Not Film
“Canned theater” is a common knock against movie musicals: basically treating the production as a stage play with a camera pointed at it. Hooper, to his credit, shied away from that with Les Mis not only in its sweeping visual scope, but in the deliberate (and still controversial) decision to record the singing on set in real time instead of adding it in post-production.
You can argue the merits and flaws of the decision, but there’s no debating that it sets the movie apart from the play. Consider, for example, most theatrical productions of “I Dreamed a Dream,” which needs a full-throated delivery to reach the cheap seats, and therefore becomes defiant and larger-than-life by default.
Contrast that with Hathaway’s intimate whispers of despair and subtlety of expression that you simply can’t duplicate on the stage.
Again, all well and good… for Les Mis. But if you’ll forgive the pun, we’re dealing with a different breed of cat here, which requires much different techniques to render it “cinematic.” Whether or not that could be accomplished is uncertain, but it’s safe to say that filmmakers’ chosen route was the wrong call. Spectacularly wrong.
3. When Uncanny Valleys Attack
Spectacle works differently with the immediacy of theater than it does in the movies, which are both more intimate (see Hathaway, above) and have more elaborate tools at their disposal. As a stage musical, Cats uses a lot of bells and whistles, but it’s still far simpler than a movie needs to be. In this case, simpler is better.
For instance, the stage version typically takes place in a single unchanging location: allowing the audience to become accustomed the idea that we’re seeing an ordinary universe from a cat’s point of view. The costumes do much the same: straightforward unitards and make-up that evoke cat-like features without trying to convince us that we’re watching actual felines.
Kitsch? Maybe. But it allows the music and choreography to take the spotlight and lets us appreciate the very human, non-nightmare-inducing performers flashing their chops (seven nights a week and without the benefit of a second take in case of a mistake). There are no wires. There’s no CGI. And the physical distance of the audience lets us watch the human form in motion without wondering which layer constitutes their actual skin, or why none of them possess genitals.
In short, we’re not actively creeped out by it.
The movie tosses all that out the window without anything to offer in compensation. That close-up camera work that helped win Hathaway the Oscar becomes a tender trap here. “Hey, the audience won’t be 200 feet away, so we need to make the actors more convincingly feline.” Hence the need for CGI and more elaborate effects… the staggering horror of which was apparent the moment that first trailer hit the screens.
In an effort to become more “realistic” – a staggering oxymoron in a production requiring four-footed animals to dance like ballerinas (as well as possessing opposable thumbs and… clothes? Not clothes? WHAT THE HELL ARE THEY WEARING?!) – they run straight into the uncanny valley. The resulting human-animal hybrids feel more at home in horror than musical fantasy, and without more of a storyline to distract us, we’re forced to contemplate the hideous amalgamation in scene after excruciating scene.
(Sadly, Cats isn’t the first time Universal stumbled into this particular bear trap. Mike Myers’ Cat in the Hat came from the same studio… and we all know how that ended up. Why they thought CGI could accomplish what Myers’ traditional make-up couldn’t is beyond the ken of mere mortals.)
Furthermore, the roaming camera allows the the movie to explore numerous different locations instead of just one. But – against all logic – the uncanny valley follows them there too, presenting not a seemingly normal world from a cats’ point of view but an alien landscape of half-recognizable streets, homes and storefronts alternately baffling and unsettling. (Someone called it “the first big-budget H.P. Lovecraft picture”.)
Hooper’s need to do something different is admirable, but this production required a far more down-to-earth approach… and considering the ambitions involved, that might not have been possible. The results, unfortunately, speak for themselves.
4. Counter-programming is Harder Than It Looks
Finally the release directly opposite The Rise of Skywalker became the insane cherry on the shitshow sundae. Take on Star Wars? STAR WARS?! What PR suicide pact did that involve?!
Yet Universal’s decisions did not come without precedent, and similar counter-programming gambits have paid off quite handsomely in the past. The strongest example came in 2008 when their feel-good musical Mamma Mia! opened on the same day as The Dark Knight. It made a tidy profit in the wake of a cultural juggernaut — $600 million worldwide, despite claiming just a fraction of The Dark Knight’s ticket sales – and at first blush, there’s no reason to think that Cats couldn’t pull off the same trick.
But when you look deeper, the flaws in that logic become abundantly clear, and the studio clearly didn’t take the differences in the two situations into account.
In the first place, the contrast between tone and visual style in 2008 couldn’t be more obvious. The Dark Knight was, well, dark: grim, brooding, violent and ending with one of the most nihilistic cliffhangers in the history of the medium. None of that is a criticism – the film is one of the greatest comic-book adaptions of all time – but not every audience member would be down for those vibes.
Enter Mamma Mia!: two hours of pretty people in love dancing on a Greek beach singing Abba songs about it. That gave it a distinctiveness that appealed to those with no interest in the borderline nihilism of Christopher Nolan’s inky-black masterpiece.
The contrast, quite literally, is a matter of night and day: something even the most casual film-goer could grasp in an instant.
Cats, on the other hand, is far more fantastical than Mamma Mia! which makes it far more difficult to stand out as an alternative to the 600 lb space-opera gorilla it’s competing with. It’s as laden with special effects as any summer blockbuster, with a deliberately surreal setting and characters who aren’t human and never were. That places it uncomfortably close to that galaxy far, far away, and without 40 years of familiarity to fall back on. (Mamma Mia!, in contrast, required no CGI, and took place in a readily identifiable “real world” that required no further explanation.)
On top of that, The Rise of Skywalker is much more family friendly than The Dark Knight and parents inclined to avoid Nolan’s long stare into the abyss are more than happy to take the wee ones to watch Rey and friends do their thing.
You can’t counter-program if you don’t know who you’re appealing too. And assuming that one action-packed blockbuster is the same as another simply because of the budget and profile can be fatal… as the entire world just witnessed.
Studio filmmaking involves more risk that it sometimes appears, and greatness demands the kind of ambition that’s willing to roll the dice from time to time. Cats was born out of understandable logic and carried hopes validated by earlier efforts from director and studio alike. Clearly, it seemed like a good idea at the time, and it can be very hard to change course once a production like this gets rolling. But none of that changes the abysmal results, and if you shoot for the moon and miss, it’s a long way down. Cats may be destined for the kind of bizarre immortality that similar bombs have earned, and if so, it pays to understand what brought it to this place. As a movie, it’s unspeakable, but as a cautionary example, it can’t be beat.
Would that Hollywood could learn those kinds of lessons more often.