Every time I visit my soon-to-be-in-laws, my movie knowledge increases immensely. They like movies and watch a lot of them. My soon-to-be-mother-in-law wanted to watch Cats. So did I. Her sons did not. We took the opportunity and dropped the menfolk off at another screen for another movie and settled in for some whimsy.
And I liked Cats.
Oh, I know everyone was creeped out by the trailer. I was intrigued. I have a high tolerance for the uncanny, I guess. Also, I like cats (not the musical; I mean the animals and everything to do with them) so I’m a little biased.
But I think maybe it says something about cinema expectations as much as it says about my always seeming to like the unpopular stuff or getting on the bandwagon too late.
If you go into Cats expecting some kind of compelling, complex storyline or other typical continuity, you will be disappointed and frustrated. But I didn’t. I went in expecting whimsy and spectacle and absurdity and only the very faintest whiff of a plot; I went in expecting to see very talented actors frolicking around pretending to be kitties and just enjoying themselves in the process. I was not disappointed or frustrated. I was charmed and delighted.
As a full disclaimer, I’d always wanted to see the musical Cats (it’s cats, duh), but I’d never had the opportunity. While I’m aware that there’s a thriving bootleg video system for these things, and while there are regular tours of Broadway shows, I don’t like to mess with finding bootlegs (wouldn’t know where to start) and I’m not often in a position to catch a touring show, and I certainly haven’t been to New York in a very long time. The Broadway musical industry has not learned (as the Opera industry has with things like the Met’s simulcasts) to make their recordings accessible with paid simulcasts or easily purchased other kinds of digital access, and it’s a tragedy. The result is that I have somehow gotten to be thirty-two years old, a complete “cat lady,” and yet not seen a production of Cats until last week. When the movie was announced, I was super excited–here at last was my chance!
And I think a lot of the rejection of Cats as film has had to do with our expectations of films to be complex, carefully unified texts. Cats turns out to be marvelously post-modern, a deep dive into the uncanny that asks you to lay aside any expectations of plot or theme being a major driving force in a film, and simply open up to spectacle. While I acknowledge that it’s definitely not the best movie I’ve ever seen, or even the catchiest songs by Andrew Lloyd Webber I’ve ever heard, it was fun in the same way that Fantasia is fun–a series of loosely connected musical set pieces driven more by a deep sense of play than anything too serious.
And when you approach the text with the base assumption that it will be disconnected, whimsical, and slightly absurd, it opens up new delights. For instance, were you paying attention to the beautiful and whimsical set design, which carried the cat-ness of the whole cats thing as far as it could? Were you paying attention to the clever tail choreography in the dance numbers, which was probably the most cat-like part of the whole thing? Did you notice the brilliant word-play in the lyrics? Delightful.
It’s easy to hate on Cats. It would have been better in 2D animation, or with simple cat costumes, or any number of other approaches, I’m sure. It’s far from perfect. But it’s fun.
And I think it’s definitely worth the reminder that sometimes something is just meant to be fun. Not everything has to be serious stuff. Sometimes, it’s just fluffy fun.