The internet had an intense allergic reaction to “Cats” yesterday. But the story and its strangeness goes far beyond one trailer and into the heart of the creative process and marketing calculations.
Cats was a huge hit that seemed to run forever. Yet the investment in a major movie version of the musical looks today, after some intense online reactions, like a massive misstep. We’ll take a look at the reactions, but we want to go a bit deeper because we think that’s just scratching the surface (sorry).
Back in January of this year, No Film School did a “most anticipated movies of 2019” round-up and I picked Cats for one of mine. Not for any reason other than the fact that I saw this reaction coming.
Because one day I googled Cats and I read the Wikipedia entry and I realized it wasn’t just a play about dancing singing Cats. I mean… it was… but it was also so much weirder.
Just read the plot of Cats on Wikipedia and it is like somebody tried to transcribe a dream seconds after waking up from wisdom tooth surgery.
— Ben Collins (@oneunderscore__) July 18, 2019
There is stuff in there about a “Jellicle Choice” and the “Heaviside layer” with characters named “Rum Tum Tugger”…and honestly, it’s all more confusing and weird than the opening crawl to Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and that’s saying something.
But let’s start with what happened yesterday. A massively expensive VFX laden trailer dropped with some of the biggest names in Hollywood and Music playing Cats and the internet had a complete meltdown over how bizarre it all was.
Hollywood is more risk-averse than ever these days, so how and why did all of this go down quite this way?
The Press Reacts to the Cats Trailer
Let’s start with the headlines:
The Atlantic: I Watched the Cats Trailer, and I Have Some Questions
The Root: Cats Trailer: This Is Nightmare Fuel
The Boston Globe: ‘Cats’ Trailer Unites the Internet in Abject Terror
The New York Post: The ‘Cats’ movie looks absolutely terrifying
Jezebel: This Is Obscene
The gist of all of these ‘reactions’ is that while yes, Cats the musical was always weird, adding in the cinematic elements the trailer does, including what seems like very expensive “digital fur”, makes things go from weird to weirder…to weirdest.
I don’t know what I expected from CATS’ “digital fur technology” but the short answer is NOT this.
My brain has melted. My eyes are bleeding. There is no god. pic.twitter.com/HMeM0ixal1
— Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko) July 18, 2019
Buzzfeed (who else?) did a round-up of the reactions on Twitter which ranged from echoing the same horrified sentiment as the major news outlets to some very solid jokes and recuts that included creepier music. Because it wasn’t creepy enough.
What’s the Deal With Cats
Okay, so you didn’t come to No Film School to get a recap of Twitter reactions to a trailer, but that is a big part of the narrative here.
Cats isn’t just weird now that it’s this major movie with digital fur on Taylor Swift in what feels like something created entirely for Furries.
It’s been weird since it began in 1982. Wait, no.
It’s been weird since 1939 when T.S. Eliot wrote it as a book of ‘whimsical’ poems called “Old Possums Book of Practical Cats”
Yes that T.S. Eliot. The one who wrote an epic poem called The Wasteland, which makes you wonder if he was involved in some kind of time warp where he saw the musical movie trailer for his Old Possum poem and then went back to 1922 to write The Wasteland. Maybe July is the cruelest month…
Yeah, so you could say this has been weird for a while. Who is Old Possum? Why are the Cats practical? I don’t know. I don’t even know if the musical addresses those things.
Andrew Lloyd Webber started creating the musical Practical Cats in the late 1970s, working without a lyricist (or a plot), because he had grown up with the T.S. Eliot poem. In an odd twist, Judy Dench was originally cast in Cats but an Achilles tendon injury had her step out. So her return to the movie version is something coming full circle:
therapist: judi dench as a cat isn’t real she can’t hurt you
judi dench as a cat: pic.twitter.com/1cLqmS22xO
— raya (@wewritelettrs) July 18, 2019
Webber was already an icon, but the success of Cats was unprecedented and eventually record-breaking. The show ran for 21 years with roughly 9,000 performances. It’s been performed in 30 countries, translated into 15 languages, and seen by an estimated 73 million people.
You’ve no doubt heard the stand-out song from the piece “Memories”.
The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear pic.twitter.com/s7uGRiFKrp
— Kate Aronoff (@KateAronoff) July 19, 2019
So If Cats is Such a Mega Hit What’s Up With This Reaction?
This is the important question, isn’t it?
With such a… pedigree… (sorry, had to), it’s easy to see why a major studio forked over such a massive budget, and a star-studded cast signed on.
The Cats movie is the best prank that anyone ever played on celebrities and I respect it so much.
— Wendy Molyneux (@WendyMolyneux) July 19, 2019
You might look at Cats as an example of where blind loyalty to the business of nostalgia and previously popular IP goes very wrong. Yes, Cats was big, maybe even bigger than big, but for whom, and does that audience exist now in full force ready to go see it as a movie?
The answer might still be yes. Cats may have a solid debut, pulling in older fans of the musical, as well as younger people who love stars like Jennifer Hudson and Taylor Swift. The calculation may still be correct, and the risk minimal.
The reaction culture of the internet is just another large slice of a very large pie. Which leads us to another question or thought, which is that we may often think that movies and TV need to fit into one or two boxes we are most familiar with, but there are many very large boxes we don’t consider as often.
For example, you don’t need everyone who sees a Marvel movie to see a movie for it to be a hit. There are enough people in the world to show up for a variety of content. We’ll see how Cats does, and it could do poorly which would indicate that the marketing was perhaps to blame, maybe the audience didn’t exist, and maybe the whole thing was a miscalculation. Surely many people who are debriefing on yesterday will debrief again.
I don’t know why you’re all freaking out over miniature yet huge cats with human celebrity faces and sexy breasts performing a demented dream ballet for kids.
— Louis Virtel (@louisvirtel) July 18, 2019
But whatever the results are, it makes sense for us to look at the big picture here as filmmakers and storytellers. It may be that the ‘reaction’ culture only feeds into the industry’s risk-averse nature. It may also be that as long as studios are going to spend money on a musical about dancing anthropomorphized Cats, one hopes they’d also take some smaller risks on some other weird stuff as well. In the meantime, here is the trailer if you haven’t seen it yet.