I was clear back in August: I was maybe the one person in media truly excited for Cats and guess, what? I was not disappointed. The movie was more in line with the show than I ever could have imagined and most of the improvements were wins, so yes, I really enjoyed it.
How is such a thing possible when this film is getting so roundly savaged by critics and has already become meme-ified for its horribleness? Well, it’s because Cats is not so much a movie or a show as it is a test for what you the audience is willing to believe and how much you’re able to check your cynicism at the door. I didn’t like Cats just because I’m contrary or weird (even though I am) but because I went into willing to listen to the tagline and “believe.”
All musicals are inherently unreal. People don’t sing their feelings in real life (alas). There’s a spectrum of musicals in terms of their believability. On one end is the type that only or mostly contains songs that would work naturally in our world as performances, like White Christmas. In fact, shows that rely on the idea of their lead characters as singers or performers are incredibly common, from Kiss Me, Kate to The Phantom of the Opera. On the other end of this spectrum is Cats.
Cats asks us to believe, not just in the idea of characters singing as a means of story, but that performers we are watching are animals that sing and dance. Every show requires some suspension of disbelief, but Cats requires more than most. And even when the show debuted in 1981, it was too much for some audiences. That’s the first barrier to entry for some audiences. But there are more.
People are often willing to believe in a show or a story if it has some lofty ideal or important message. Hamilton is a great example. The musical styles and casting of Hamilton don’t match history (that’s rather the point) and that doesn’t matter one lick because it’s great music and it’s telling a great, important story. Cats has great music too, but it’s just … about cats. There are sad cats and bad cats but it’s still … just cats.
And it’s really about cats: it’s a deep exploration of the quirks and habits of all types of Cats but it’s done via extremely dense poetry. T. S. Eliot was a smart, funny guy and treated the idea of cats who eat a lot, cats who break things out of sight, or steal things, or have kittens all of a sudden etc. with such inventive wordplay that the humor of it is sometimes hard to get. Add in music and dancing to these poems and its harder but it’s not impossible.
(Side note: there is no Dogs musical because twenty songs about how all dogs are good would get boring).
The weirdness of Cats applies to the stage show, but when we add in the unreality of digital effects—which in this case really don’t make the performers look any weirder than the people in the Broadway show, it just lets their tails and ears move which I thought was so cool—you get another level of otherness, another barrier to entry. But again, it’s no worse than a talking raccoon fighting alongside a talking tree—it’s just what you’re willing to go with.
Cats is both a show that makes you work if you want to “understand it” but also a show that rewards not trying to understand anything at all and just going with it. And it’s in this seconds aspect that it really does function as a crucible of what you’re willing to tolerate in terms of whimsy and silliness. Why do some of the Cats have shoes? Or hands? You might as well as “why are they singing at all?” Because the answer is the same to every nitpick: because they just do.
Those of us that like genre and musicals and other non-pretentious works of art know better than anyone that something doesn’t need to make perfect sense to be good. Or more importantly, to be fun. Cats isn’t profound, it’s a fun, weird little show that’s just about cats. That’s all. It’s not trying to be anything more and it resists examination like a kitten at the vet. It is what it is and I liked it because it has an inherent innocence and sincerity that’s rare in our jaded, cynical, overly analytical times.
Whether something is “good” or “bad” is ultimately subjective, alas. There will always be someone that liked the thing you hated. I liked Cats. To me it’s good, and I’m happy to defend that. To someone else, it might be boring or horrifying, and that’s fine too. We don’t have to agree. But we also shouldn’t use what we think is bad or good as an elitist cudgel to demean people that liked things we deem lesser. We don’t need that snobbery.
For me, Cats was magical. It was a near-perfect translation of show that should have been unfilmable. It kept in songs I was sure would be cut and it was so boldly and confidently Cats that I had to respect it and I truly enjoyed each moment. I made the jellicle choice to believe and I’m glad I did.
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