Once upon a time in Los Angeles, producers used to throw money at musicals with the kind of generosity seen only nowadays on the budget sheets of superhero movies. These roadshow releases, such as the likes of The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, and West Side Story were majestic hits. They would also be wildly out of place if they were released to modern theaters in 2019. Yet here we are with a cinematic relic: an all-star adaption of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit musical Cats, saddled with state-of-the-art “digital fur technology” and a massively over-bloated budget for a film of its caliber. Sure, it’s an astoundingly terrible film; the cat’s meow of awful adaptations. All (admittedly hilarious) vicious reviews aside, it says something good about the state of the industry that a $100 million dollar disaster such Cats (2019) could sneak by in an age of superheroes and franchise features.
Tom Hooper is no stranger to musicals. He directed 2012’s adaptation of Les Misérables to box office success and a slew of award nominations and wins. He just wasn’t a good fit for Cats, however. Despite the additions to the narrative to make it, well, actually have some story instead of being a two hour icebreaker for a bunch of Jellicle cats, it’s a totally wrong-headed mess. Hooper’s film, however, has a leg up on multiple blockbusters from this year in that it’s completely dedicated to this atrocious vision. It’s disastrous, to be sure, but the commitment to this unique vision that includes mice with the distorted faces of human children, a chorus line of cockroaches, and a naked Idris Elba harmonizing with Taylor Swift after drugging everyone at the Jellicle Ball with catnip, makes it highly entertaining. You don’t have to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol for it, though I’m sure it helps.
At end of the day, it was genuinely more entertaining than the latest entries in the Marvel and Star Wars franchises. The entertainment factor comes from how unique Cats is in our cinematic world. A reminder of how unique this kind of disaster is: at the end of the 1960s, the movie musical died due to a string of bombs (Paint Your Wagon, Hello Dolly) that proved there was no more money to be made from them. The sudden and unexpected revival of this once-extinct trend of over-bloated musicals is a pleasant surprise in the dry and dusty landscape of Hollywood filmmaking.
Cats will likely join the ranks of films such as Showgirls, Battlefield Earth, and Waterworld in the list of legendarily awful box office bombs that endure due to cult status, living on as a staple of “Bad Movie Nights” across the country. People will sing along, laugh, and play drinking games to the word Jellicle — though they will die of alcohol poisoning in the attempt. Cats is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of misfire that rarely appears in a movie theater, and I implore you to see it for yourself. It’s ultimately a good thing that this money pit exists: it’s proof that as long as a producer believes in something, the studios will throw money at any project, no matter how ludicrous it may sound. At a time when small and mid-budget films like Hustlers, Knives Out, and Uncut Gems are thriving at the box office, it’s heartening to see studios willing to throw massive budgets at wonderfully dumb ideas. Hell, Universal has one of those coming up this month. I doubt Doctor Dolittle will return its budget of $175 million, but we should be happy that they were willing to give the project that much money.
If the world had more big budget movies like Cats and less films such as Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker or Spider-Man: Far From Home, the film world much be a healthier and more interesting place. God bless Universal and Tom Hooper for trying.
Cats (2019) is now playing Nationwide