If there is a film that can take your mind away from this world, it’s Tom Hooper’s “Cats” of 2019.
“Cats” begins not unlike most stories do, with a fish out of water, except in this case it’s a cat, thrown in there—in the Heideggerian sense of the term but also, literally, because that’s exactly what happens in the film to our heroine, a white cat named Victoria—to lead us through the series of events to unfold.
Victoria (Francesca Hayward) is soon greeted by a motley crew of cats who call themselves Jellicle cats, who soon burst out in song. The first is “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats”, a song about all kinds of cats, from “practical cats, dramatical cats” to “romantical cats, pedantical cats.” I am briefly reminded of the Radioactive Sago Project song, “Gusto Ko ng Baboy”, similarly about many kinds of baboy (pigs): “may baboy na pink, may baboy na green (…) may baboy na mahirap, may baboy na mayaman” (“there are pink pigs, there are green pigs… there are rich pigs, there are poor pigs”), and so on.
Indeed there are many kinds of many things, and this first song number already lays the ontological foundation of “Cats”: that cats are not just, in fact, cats, as in regular cats, but that cats are at once singular, multitudinous, complex, and irreducible to our expectations and stereotypes of cats. My loose usage of the term “cats” here might betray this important point, because what I’m referring to aren’t really cats, but this strange band of cat-like beings whose private lives and Jellicle-consciousness are suddenly made known to us. That these cat-like beings identify as inexplicably “Jellicle” is perhaps precisely the point.
If this bizarre ontological grounding isn’t contentious enough, immediately, Victoria is asked her name, and not just her name that is already “Victoria”, but the name that comes from the “difficult matter” that is the naming of cats. In unison the cats recite T. S. Eliot:
When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name
This one scene has an important expository purpose, as a cat’s naming is integral to the philosophy of “Cats”. In the meantime, unanswered, the business of the name dissipates under the moonlight, as the cats dance a cat-ballet. It is here that the crux of the story is revealed: the Jellicle choice, or Old Deuteronomy’s (Judi Dench) decision on which cat will be reborn as the cat he or she has always wanted to be.
More on that later, but first we meet Jennyanydots the Gumbie Cat (Rebel Wilson), and now we’re one cat deeper into the intoxicating visual language of “Cats”. More than the initially strange physiology of the cats (which, at this point, should not be a conceptual hurdle, because a Jellicle cat should look like what a Jellicle cat looks like), even more mesmerizing are the decidedly eccentric proportions of things in this world. Objects—chairs, food, architecture—are inflated, except for when certain things have to function as correctly-sized accoutrement for a cat’s specific needs. From a world builder’s perspective, these are not only aesthetic decisions but a metaphysical one. The design of “Cats” addresses this multifaceted problematique with a consistently restrained cohesion that, despite many flagrant strangenesses—dancing mice and marching cockroaches notwithstanding—does not capitalize off weird for its own sake.
Moving on, Rum Tum Tugger’s (Jason Derulo) song number takes place in a bar with a slew of backup dancers. It’s basically a 21st-century music video, taking place in an alternate universe where the only real prerequisite is the inalienable cat-dom that, at this point, I have completely warmed up to. Upon the introduction of Bustopher Jones (James Corden), I realize I’m beginning to enjoy the seemingly serial nature of the film’s narrative structure. Meeting a new character in “Cats” evokes the novel sensation of meeting a newly unveiled character in Japanese anime, as a lead character episodically discovers an ensemble cast, and consequently each one’s conceits, idiosyncrasies, and most importantly, abilities. With or without subtitles on, it doesn’t much matter than you can’t put your finger on what exactly the cats are singing about at any given point. Partly the success in the casting of adept performers in “Cats” is that the actor’s sporadic and truncated appearances eschew the character development expected in an epic, for a successful impressionism that is rooted in charismatic physicality, from Derulo’s pop star swagger to Corden’s slapstick gesticulations. This is what makes possible the enjoyment of the songs’ funny, phonetically playful poetry.
There is a brief interlude where our heroine becomes part of a threesome, alongside partners in crime Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer (Danny Collins and Naoimh Morgan). Their song, which on the surface is one about mischief, tells of a family that would attribute strange phenomena in the home, from a window found ajar to missing pearls, to “that horrible cat!” Without the cats’ owning up to these crimes, you’d think that “the drawers pulled out from the bedroom chest” or the Argentine joint that “has gone from the oven” could very well be the doings of a poltergeist. (I’ll return to this speculatively supernatural point shortly.)
The film makes an ominous turn as Macavity (Idris Elba) is revealed to be kidnapping cats and keeping them hostage on a barge in the Thames! Meanwhile, when Old Deuteronomy first emerges from a cloud of smoke, the Jellicle cats go about their knee-jerk instinct to chant about what Jellicle cats are. (“Jellicle cats are black and white, Jellicle cats are rather small… Jellicle cats wait for the Jellicle moon to rise,” etc.) The Jellice Ball commences, and the Jellicle cats begin to dance a synchronously twitchy dance, one with sufficiently occult undertones, under the pale moon light no less, before the ball turns into a free-for-all dance hall, “Step Up” style.
In what is perhaps the requisite lull but sincere moment smack in the middle of the film, our heroine speaks (in song) for the first time, after meeting Grizabella the Glamour Cat (Jennifer Hudson). The alternate title of “Victoria’s Song” is “Beautiful Ghosts”. It goes:
Born into nothing
With them, I have something, something to cling to
I never knew I’d love this world they let me into
And the memories were lost long ago
So I’ll dance with these beautiful ghosts
“Beautiful Ghosts” encapsulates the central conflict in “Cats”. (Clue: It is not Macavity’s villainy.) At the heart of “Cats” is a melancholy search for identity and belongingness in a very strange world, all the more made poignant when laced with the joyous and hopeful romance of song and dance. It is of course interesting that Victoria refers to her newfound friends as ghosts. Does she intuit that they, including herself, are leading lives that are somehow mystifyingly obtuse, deficient of the hallmarks of what we, humans, recognize as being so: agency, freedom, or death itself? In the midst of the quasi-competitive drive of the cats to be chosen by Deuteronomy for rationed rebirth, the shadow of death looms over “Cats” as its preeminent mystery. The Jellicle’s notion of rebirth is a repeat-life that is cosmologically better than the one they already know of. They do not question the voyage getting there. They simply accept it as a comfortable mystery that cannot possibly betray their unquestioning faith in it.
At the heart of Cats is a melancholy search for identity and belongingness in a very strange world.
Veiled death appears elsewhere in the film. When Gus the Theatre Cat (Ian McKellen) laments that “the theatre is not like what it was,” he is mourning the death of an ancien regime, a more glorious time “when Victoria reigned.” How McKellen acted that scene, where Gus, for a split-second, seems to have a lump in his throat while singing, “I have acted with Irving / I have acted with Tree,” shines precisely in the ridiculous premise that is Ian-McKellen-is-a-cat. If Gus were picked to be reborn, I think he would choose to be reunited with Irving and Tree, not in a new day, but an old one.
In this juncture in the screenplay, the introduction of Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat (Steven McRae) has a twofold function. First, we are obviously in dire need of some tap dancing and a string of cats promenading down train tracks. (The film has progressed solemnly until this point.) Second, the character of Skimbleshanks further reinforces the role of a “beautiful ghost” to dance with. He sings, “You might say that by and large it was me who was in charge / Of the Sleeping Car Express.” Skimbleshanks takes pride in his situatedness in arbitrary circumstance. “From the driver and the guards to the bagmen playing cards / I would supervise them all more or less.” He is like a ghost that lurks in the background of the affairs of men, a ghost who doesn’t know that he’s effectually insubstantial. The weird thing is that in what I claim to be his delusion, Skimbleshanks seems perfectly content in his situation. If so, why is he competing for rebirth? Why does he long for something more to be had?
Next: Taylor Swift ex machina. Her character Bombalurina, the Poison Ivy of catnip, descends from a mechanical moon. It is Bombalurina’s Super Bowl Halftime (that she is Taylor Swift, I guess, makes sense), setting the stage for Macavity’s formal introduction, leading to Deuteronomy’s kidnapping, and Mr. Mistoffelees’ crucial moment. About Deuteronomy’s disappearance one cat remarks, “We can’t just magic her back!” There is such a sad weight to those words, especially for the audience who, for the past hour or so, may have already started to believe that absolutely anything can happen in this madhouse of a film. The doubt expressed against the notion of magic wasn’t just the lone voice of a naysayer, but the inveterate worldview of the Jellicle that, up until this point, served them well and made them at peace with the night.
When Victoria counters, “Yes, we can!”, the film finally contends with the world it has painstakingly built. Is this world for or fundamentally pitted against the Jellicle? In the pivotal moment where magic was the solution, Mr. Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson) only had party tricks. It is excruciating to behold, especially because Jellicle culture ascribes paramount importance to one’s name, and one’s worth is measured against how one is able to live up to that name. But whether or not the Jellicle cats can rescue Old Deuteronomy, the failure or success of this enterprise, is not the true dichotomy here. For if Mr. Mistoffelees’ magic were to fail, it is not difficult to imagine the cats being able to devise some Jellicle rescue, notwithstanding the practical logistics of it. What is more difficult to imagine is for the magic to work, because the prejudice against it is built into the fabric of “Cats”, cumulatively established, cat per cat, and every pragmatically useless thing about each one. The definitive yes-or-no question here is whether or not believing in magic will have a payoff in this lifetime. “Cats”, sympathetic to the Jellicle, answers in the affirmative. After some encouragement from Jellicle friends, Mr. Mistoffelees succeeds. Old Deuteronomy returns to make her choice.
Finally, it is my reading that the Jellicle choice is basically the granting of a death wish. When Grizabella sings, “I must wait for the sunrise/ I must think of a new life”, it is a prospect so unthinkable that she falls on her knees. Old Deuteronomy chose Grizabella not because she sang the best song, but because Old Deuteronomy knew that Grizabella was the only one who understood what the Jellicle choice truly meant. It is easy to miss the basic but fascinating irony here if, fashionably, one would ride the bandwagon that dismisses “Cats” because of some profoundly irreconcilable weirdness. As the Jellicle cats look on and listen to “Memory”, they are witnessing an unplaceable grief that is unique to Grizabella. In the film Victoria interjects, “Sunlight, through the trees in summer / Endless masquerading”, which, in this vein, can only be pointedly described as a misguided naïveté.
It must be noted that in spite of early doubts about what kind of movie “Cats” is or wanted to be, one thing it never was is self-conscious, even in its most comedic bids. Tempting though it may be for a material so robustly farcical, “Cats” never swerved from the deceptively simplistic yet beautifully convoluted logic—one seemingly straight out of Ancient Greece—that it chose to operate on. Any faint glimmer of a cheeky wink is ultimately lost in its painfully tragic sincerity. It is because of this that the magic worked.