It was around this time last year that I suddenly became extremely obsessed with Cats (2019). Seeing this movie in theatres (at 8:00 AM) was one of the most memorable movie going experiences I have ever had. With just enough coffee in my system to keep my eyes half open, I could barely tell what parts of Cats (2019) were real and what could only be described as an asymptomatic fever dream. One CGI nightmare after another poured across the screen without even the slightest semblance of the original musical’s barely-there narrative. The movie rivals the wildest work of Herzog. It is, in a word, bananas.
Part of my obsession with this movie, besides it somehow eclipsing Climax as the most intense dance-based movie of the year, was that it showed up in the wake of Martin Scorcese picking a fight with Marvel. Scorcese, in short, was arguing that Marvel movies aren’t “cinema” because they are made based on algorithms for success: the movies aren’t made to be good films, they’re made to bring in dollars. That sort of thing. Not horribly groundbreaking. The argument can be made about any franchise movie series out there (read- is there anyone who doesn’t think The Mandalorian was made to rope children into buying more Star Wars stuff while also getting nerds hyped on Boba Fett merchandise?).
But when you put the argument in conversation with Cats (2019), this monstrosity becomes so much more interesting. Cats (2019) tried to do exactly what the Marvel algorithms did: make a movie perfectly designed to rake in cash (There was an endless string of famous actors and musicians! It was based on a thing that everyone is already familiar with! There were visual effects! There were singable songs! They added in some jokes!). But even though every single box on the checklist was checked, a train wreck happened in the uncanny valley.
It was, to put it succinctly, a triumph of cinema. It beat the algorithm by failing so hard.
It was a deeply uncomfortable film for so many reasons, but one of the biggest was that no one at any point said no. How did no one realize the singing was off to the point of sounding bad? Why did no one think that the Cats in Cats (2019) would come off as computer animated demons? Why did no one realize how grotesquely over-sexualized the Black cats were? Actually, why did no one say that racializing cats with stereotypes was a deeply awful choice? At every single one of these points, someone should have said “this is a bad idea” but apparently nobody did and they just kept going.
The line, apparently, was cat buttholes. Go figure.
But this lack of saying no ironically also made Cats (2019) a way more memorable film. If the people behind the movie had actually made decent choices, the fact is that they probably would have ended up with something completely forgettable: a serviceable rendition of the musical that appealed to large audiences while probably annoying a few die-hard fans. It may have snagged an Oscar nomination or two for costume design or something, but no one would remember that movie past Mid-March.
But it never happened. No one said no. And now we have Cats (2019).
What works for Cats (2019), however, might not work for everything. The Star Wars franchise, for instance, is a clear example. The prequels have long been maligned for the exact reason that Cats (2019) reached such great heights: no one told George Lucas at any point that his ideas were bad. Because of this, we end up with hours long dirges about the importance of tax law.
Clearly, the algorithms have worked in Star Wars’ favor: The Mandalorian, despite my previous snark, is a pretty damn fun watch.
So what’s the difference? To hazard a guess, I think the difference is the amount of ideas. The Star Wars prequels were awful because Lucas’ idea for a storyline was just incredibly boring and unfocused. Instead of developing characters, he just laid out a conflict and made a bunch of lifeless drones walk through the major plot points. Cats (2019), on the other hand, made ridiculous decision after ridiculous decision that added to the absurdity all the way until the very end. And that compounding of bonkerz-ness is what pushes Cats (2019) to the level of spectacle and imbues the film with a sense of the grotesque.
As another example, I present Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square, a new Christmas film on Netflix that doesn’t quite reach Cats (2019) levels of absurdity (largely because it involved little to no CGI), but it comes close. And the opening number provides enough fodder to lay all of this out.
Like any good musical, the opening number for COTS gives the entire thing away: it sets up the conflict, introduces some characters, and then lets the rest of the musical follow in its wake. The problem is that the narrative complexity of COTS rivals Magnolia, with what seems like a dozen interlocking storylines compiled into one film. But we’re also dealing with a Christmas movie and anything more than 100 minutes would feel like a marathon.
This is where someone should say no. But no one did. And instead, they just use the opening number to lay out every single storyline all at the same time. Here’s how it goes down, presented as a stream of conscious rant:
Open on Dolly Parton dressed like a unhoused person, but with a full face of impeccable make up and great hair. Despite some tears in her clothes, they look incredibly expensive. Also, she’s sparkling. We’re already in a deeply weird zone. Dolly begins singing about Christmas. The entire population of the town is moving around in the background. Some of them are dressed in what looks like graduation gowns. We get just a touch of autotune on Dolly’s voice, enough to notice it as we’re dragged into the uncanny valley. A guy rolls past on roller skates. Why are there roller skates? You don’t have time to think as Dolly sings the line “there are the haves and the have nots. You could be either one.” A touch of Marxism for some reason? The zone gets even weirder.
This is where the first of many shifts in the music enters the picture. The slow country twang of Dolly’s solo is suddenly rushed off stage as upbeat horns and drums welcome a far more bouncy and energetic feel to the scene. The dancing starts. The townspeople have entered full on musical theatre mode, with the obligatory and surface level nods to hip-hop with an overabundance of gymnastics floor routines thrown into the mix. The melody from Dolly’s number remains, but its sped up while at the same time elements of other Christmas songs (like singing “ding dong ding dong”) are thrown into the spaces where singers should be taking breaths. Two Christmas trees, full of Christmas lights, suddenly rise from the ground on their own accord as if they were attached to springs. Why weren’t they there already? Why did no one say “maybe this is too much”? And why did they keep adding more? Three decorated dogs in a wagon bark to the rhythm.
Suddenly another song enters the picture. It’s officially a medley. The first song in the musical is a medley. We have absolutely no grounding at this point. We have not heard these songs before (and, it is worth noting, we will not hear them again). But the music changes to a ballad. A lady says “I need some mistletoe” before someone offers her the plant while someone else pushes her from behind and her expression says “someone just put an ice cube down my shirt.” I’m also pretty sure we never see this lady after this opening number.
Another woman is dangling from the gazebo by a large cloth (Cirque du Solei style) in the background. Why is she dangling there? We never find out. The country ballad returns.
We go back to the country ballad. We get one verse. Then a Mercedes Benz rolls up and a another completely new song begins. This introduces us to the mean lady who hates this town. Why? We don’t know yet. Because we’ve already moved to the third song in thirty seconds to introduce another character who is… a guy? Who owns a shop? And likes it here?
A postman shows up and, apropos of nothing, gossips about a lady who forgot to put figs in her figgy pudding. Mind you, this movie is not a period piece. It’s set in now. No one makes figgy pudding. Why is someone making figgy pudding?
We jump back to the mean lady and get the major plot point for the movie: she sold the town and is evicting everybody on Christmas Eve. CLASSIC GOOF. This ends and we jump to a different scene, inside a shop, where the following dialogue happens:
Man: “To the best Christmas gift we have ever given each other.”
Woman: “Fertility treatments is better than anything that comes in paper.”
I cannot stress this enough: WE HAVE NO IDEA WHO THESE PEOPLE ARE. This is the introduction to these characters. We have no idea what they do, where they come from, how they are related, what they are doing in that store. This is how we learn about them.
But no time to think. The mean lady just showed up. We find out that her Dad died but she likes that because now she’s a better business person (what mean lady!). In what can only be described as “White Boomer Trying to Rap” voice, she explains that she is evicting everyone because she sold the town to a mall. This makes absolutely no sense: why wouldn’t the mall just buy land next to the town rather then displacing their customers? Also, who is building a mall in 2020?
As the mean lady leaves, her bumbling assistant says “Merry Christian pastor Christmas.” Absolutely nothing about her delivery makes me think she was trying to say something else and stumbled despite her reaction. It’s a small detail, but its still deeply weird.
As the mean lady and the assistant enter the town square and start handing out eviction letters to anyone within arms length, another song starts and the assistant starts singing “I apologize” and “I’m sorry” as counter point. But we again cut to the inside of a salon as another brand new song, this time a direct Jackson 5 rip off, starts and the male stylists begin dancing in a way that can only be described as sassy.
One of the stylists, apropos of nothing, says “the higher the hair, the closer to the north pole.” Nothing about this sentence makes any sense, but it’s sort of Christmas like in feel?
Again, the mean lady enters, and we learn that the mean lady is friends with the salon owner and that they grew up together. We learn this when the mean lady says “I know we are friends and that we grew up together.”
When the salon owner asks for an explanation as to why the town is getting evicted, the mean lady begins explaining why. As she does, the stylists and the assistant form a semi-circle around the salon owner and bob their shoulders up in down in what I assume is their listening dance. But the assistant knows the plan. Why is she doing the listening dance? Why didn’t anyone say no?
The mean lady and the assistant re-enter the square as the mean lady starts singing “gotta get out of this town” as a counterpoint and shoving the eviction notice into the face of children (who, I can only assume, do not own property). The gazebo hanger has continued to spin in the background. The camera cuts to the interior of a bank where tap dancing is happening. The mean lady enters and evicts everyone inside while the tap dancers remain surprisingly chipper. She looks directly at one person and says “Your life isn’t wonderful and you are not George Bailey.” Why is she so mean to this person specifically? A moment of tango ensues with the assistant.
The mean lady walks past a window, looks wistfully inside, and begins another new song we haven’t heard before. She sings “too many memories always pulling and tugging at me.” We get a glimpse of a younger version of her and a man she was in love with. We have no idea who he is. We get no further explanation. We cut back to Dolly singing the original song. The whole town sings along to Dolly’s slow country twang but they are singing the mean lady’s lyric. The mean lady and the assistant return to the Mercedes Benz and begin singing their own song, turning the whole thing into an overly complicated round.
The song ends as the entire town sings an entirely too joyful “say goodbye to Christmas!” and Dolly sings “Christmas on the square,” in case you forgot the name of the movie. The decorated dogs return once again with an eviction notice on their wagon. eleven minutes of the movie are now over.
I could try to end this post with some sort of broad sweeping claim about the joys of not saying no, but I think I made my point. Instead, I’ll say this- watch Christmas on the Square. It’s bananas.