There’s something about the critical response to Cats that signals a crisis in film criticism itself, since there’s no way this is the nightmare that most reviewers have made it out to be. Nor is it that different in quality from the Marvel and Pixar releases that tend to generate such critical consensus in the modern reviewing landscape. Part of the gut reaction seems to stem from the differences between the film and the stage musical, which, in lieu of a real story or conventional characterisation, depended on the physical immediacy of the actors and the elaborate choreography that they performed. This physical immediacy was heightened by the immediacy of the iconic junkyard set, which extended out into the stalls, effectively creating a theatre in the round, and encouraging the performers to make physical contact with the audience. Similarly, the choreography was amongst the most difficult for a stage play at this time, demanding a skill set closer to circus performers than to regular stage actors. To some extent, the CGI-heavy approach of Tom Hooper’s adaptation works against both these features, initially making it feel as if there should be more stunt work, and more evidence of real bodies dancing in space. The scale of the set also never feels quite right, as we move from close-ups that inevitably reduce backdrops to the scale of the human body, before pulling out to long shots that reiterate the scale of the feline world, by often by making the backdrop seem far big, or out of focus, in the process.
To some extent, Hooper compensates by varying the locations, elaborating a new space for each cat, rather than sticking with the same junkyard setting of the original play. Yet this CGI-centric approach also makes for a different kind of originality from the stage production, thanks in part to the way the cats are presented on the big screen. From the very outset, the cats here seem more perversely sexual than they did on the stage, especially during the first act, which builds up to the Jellicle Ball, the main feline social event of the year. Although the cats are meant to be as “realistic” as possible, every musical number depends on a pretty unrealistic premise – that they’re standing on their two hind legs the whole time, exposing their belly and undercarriage in ways that a real cat only does in rare situations. In the stage play, this strange underbelly, which reflects the disconnect between humans and cats, was either elided by the interplay of light and movement, or abstracted and stylised by the leotards and elaborate costumes that were designed for the show. In Hooper’s version, however, this underbelly becomes considerably more uncanny, since the CGI has to cut out the genitals and chest of the actors, but also put in cat body parts that look realistic without being too redolent of human genitals, and human breasts and chests.
The result is a strange, semi-sexual body that never quite feels feline or human – a body that is always on the very cusp of being sexualized, which is perhaps why every scene in the first half of the film feels as if it is elaborating a different fetish, none of which have yet been articulated in mainstream culture. In fact, the whole first half is like experiencing some new and futuristic form of adult cinema whose sexual locus hasn’t quite been articulated, or a series of queer sexual orientations that haven’t been codified in any legible or discernible way. In the original play, each cat was meant to showcase a different musical style – one of the reasons why Cats has often been described as the first great postmodern musical, depending more on overt pastiche than a consistent musical throughline. Here, however, those stylistic differences are smoothed over into a more generic orchestral-acoustic style, as Hooper instead chooses to differentiate the first batch of cats before the Jellicle Ball in terms of their perverse proclivities, and their polymorphous approaches to pleasure, rather than in terms of the different musical styles that made the stage version so oddly angular.
On the one hand, this creates a profusion of sexual and fetishistic imagery that doesn’t really exist in the same way in the stage play, especially in the first act, where we’re treated to one image of feline perversity after another. Yet this downtempo musical style – at least compared to the stage production – imbues all of the songs with a mildly narcotic effect, especially since Hooper mainly favours non-professional singers, meaning that very few of the numbers really blast like they do on stage. For the most part, the film seems more interested in the caressing texture of the cats than in their acrobatics, as if Hooper wants us to feel held by the cats, and to feel held by their feline world, rather than to marvel at their dexterity. Most of the opening dance sequences emphasise the ungainliness of cats in ever more contorted ways, culminating with James Corden’s depiction of Bustopher Jones, the “cat about town,” who requires a whole army of extras to prevent his dancing going astray.
Beyond a certain point, the individual cats aren’t all that differentiated from this furry flux, especially since the musical arrangements don’t emphasise their stylistic differences as starkly as they do in the stage play. With more continuity between musical numbers, Hooper is able to build a clearer narrative throughline, and a stronger focus on the Jellicle mythology, which was largely implicit in the stage version, and probably indiscernible without some prior knowledge of the play, or of T.S. Eliot’s poems. Moreover, this mythology explicitly thematises this collapse of cat bodies into a continuous feline texture, as we learn that once a year Old Deuteronomy, the head Jellicle, played by Judi Dench, elects a cat to ascend to the Heaviside Layer, where they are reborn to return to earth in the guise of another cat. Since every cat wants to be elected to travel to the Heaviside Layer, they all seem more mutable and mercurial as Old Deuteronomy’s decision grows near, making their furry skin feel even more interchangeable, and inextricable from the broader texture of the film. Because some cats actually want to become other cats, the surface of their skin supervenes any cat, creating an odd tonality that’s both comforting and fetishistic.
Put another way, Cats offers cinema as fetish in the broadest sense of the word – both as a sexual ancillary, but also as a totemic object that promises to hold the audience in a protective grasp that transcends regular discourses of appreciation and criticism. Perhaps that’s why critical responses to the film have been so paranoid, as reviewers who are normally willing to give subpar Marvel films a free pass have struggled to outdo each other in expressing their critical horror at being caressed by Cats despite themselves. In a sense, Cats is the direct opposite of the Marvel universe, and the corporate prestige cinema it represents, offering a similarly middlebrow spectacle, but completely eschewing the flattering “critical distance” and ironic awareness that constitutes the Marvel style. Since Cats explicitly offers itself as a fetish that transcends taste, there is no need for it to indulge in the tastemaking that is to integral to Marvel universe-building, allowing it to revel in tasteleness from the very first cat it introduces – the Old Gumbie Cat, played by Rebel Wilson, who abruptly “takes off” her skin halfway through the performance, to reveal her “real” skin underneath, establishing from the outset that the furry feline surfaces that we are about to experience can’t be reduced to the skin of any one single cat in the ensemble.
Like a fetish, then, Cats is meant to be experienced rather than judged, effectively incorporating the judgement we might want to ascribe to it into its own performative disinterest in taste. This process unleashes an enormous amount of cinematic jouissance, as Hooper revels in his cats’ tactile, sensuous proximity to their world – especially their oral proximity, also most pronounced during the Old Gumbie Cat’s number – using his camera to rub, lick and caress his audiences in ways that defy regular critical judgement, producing widespread critical disavowal in lieu of regular film criticism. This oral fixation is at the heart of the film’s odd address, as Hooper tries to capture, on film, the most cat-like process of all – cleaning and licking your own crotch. This process is perhaps too integral to the film’s address to ever be directly depicted, as Hooper instead alternates between endless shots of cats licking, and endless shots of CGI crotches (or shots through crotches), to evoke a crotch-mouth circuit that animates every scene. Equally fixated on the space between cats’ lips and the space between cats’ legs, Hooper collapses the film into a feline process that is perverse by human standards, but also integral to the hygiene and aesthetic appeal of cats, who would be far dirtier, and far less amenable to human company, if they didn’t regularly wash themselves in this way. Figuratively, Cats is continually licking its own crotch, inviting us to participate in a perverse process that nevertheless makes the film’s feline textures even more comforting – even more capable of holding us in their collective cinematic caress.
In other words, Cats presents a kind of domesticated queerness, taking bodily configurations that are typically presented as either abject or avant-garde by tasteful Hollywood, and subsuming them into a cinema fetish that promises to hold its audience above all else. This process is fully enacted in the Jellicle Ball, an instrumental piece that occurs halfway through the production, and which was the epicentre of the stage play, gathering all of the major musical motifs, and showcasing the most spectacular and difficult choreography, just before interval. The Jellicle Ball might thus be expected to form the moment in the film version at which Hooper breaks away from CGI to evoke “real” bodies in “real” space, but he simply doubles down on the CGI here, subsuming all the cats and fetishes we have seen so far into a collective rhythm that is both orgiastic and as mild as a gently undulating blanket. This blanket remains over the second half of the film, coating and caressing the second batch of cats, who seem both queerer and less remarkable than the first batch, culminating with Mr. Mistoffelees, the last individual cat we meet, who can only perform his perverse magic tricks with the comfort and assistance of the entire cast of cats.
This second act plays like a post-gender fantasia in which everyone is on the intersex spectrum, as chests and genitals are foregrounded only as sites that fail to ramify as markers of sexual identity. In lieu of breasts, chests and genitals, the focus of these songs shift to the cats’ ears and tails, which are always operating with semi-autonomous eroticism, and with perverse disregard for both their gender and for their putative focus of erotic attention, like a sixth cruising sense that is always at an oblique remove from their sexual consciousness. While Judi Dench got slammed for suggesting that her character, Old Deuteronomy, was transgender, it’s not hard to see how she might have got this trans vibe on set, or why she might have felt that the leader of the Jellicles must be gender fluid by definition. Certainly, the dignity and sincerity with which Dench performs the final number, “The Ad-dressing of Cats,” while staring straight at the camera, feels like a trans manifesto, or an intersex manifesto, as the song takes us through the etiquette of naming, and the danger of deadnaming, a Jellicle. Whether the play was always inherently trans and intersex all along, or whether it has taken on that meaning forty years later, this focus culminates with the rendition of “Memory,” by Grizabella the Glamour Cat, played by Jennifer Hudson.
This is the real showstopper in the original musical, becoming a hit single on its own terms, and the only song that isn’t drawn from T.S. Eliot’s poetry. Here, it remains the centerpiece of the show, easily overshadowing Taylor Swift’s new single, “Beautiful Ghosts,” which doesn’t really have a lot of resonance in the overall context of the Jellicle mythology. Sung by Grizabella, the cat who is eventually chosen to ascend to the Heaviside Layer, “Memory” is a reflection on mutability, a reckoning both with Grizabella’s changes from a glamour cat to an outcast cat, but also an anticipation of the changes she might experience once she is finally transformed in the Heaviside Layer. In effect, “Memory” is poised right on the fluid cusp that collapses all feline bodies into the single furry surface that comprises Hooper’s film. As a result, it seems to reflect a memory of a time before sexual differentiation and sexual hierarchy, an inchoate primal state that the film embodies, and then demands we respect, in Dench’s final address to camera in “The Ad-dressing of Cats.” That hyphenation of “ad-dressing,” which always seemed incongruous in both Eliot’s poems and in the stage play, now seems critical to the address of Cats, which collapses naming and dressing into a gender-fluid flux so unapologetic that most critics seem incapable of properly processing it.