‘Cats,’ Full of Furry Actors and Dubious Decisions, Is the Logical Endpoint of 2019’s Blockbuster Chaos

November 19, 2019, 7:43 PM UTC

The second trailer for Cats is upon us, four long months after the first set the internet ablaze with its eerie, Animorphs-esque blurring of human and cat anatomy.

And luckily, the latest look at Universal’s ultra-expensive musical-fantasy tentpole will assuage any fears that the studio’s misspent its millions in bringing to the screen Andrew Lloyd Webber’s oddball musical about cats hanging out, deciding who among them is allowed to die. (Check my work here. That is the plot of Cats.)

Just kidding. The second trailer for Cats doubles down on all the bizarre and terrifying human-cat hybrids, yowling and cheering in a fashion that feels inexplicably wrong for both species, while reminding audiences just how many A-listers have been furrified for this holiday extravaganza, among them Idris Elba, Taylor Swift, James Corden, Dame Judi Dench, Sir Ian McKellen, and Jennifer Hudson. (Elba, especially, as menacing, gunslinger-esque Macavity the Mystery Cat, gets a showcase in the trailer, purring, jazz-handing, and alternating between fun outfits and a more au caturel look.) You can watch it above.

When it hits theaters on Dec. 20, Cats will become the biggest-budgeted movie to ever go head-to-head with a Star Wars flick (The Rise of Skywalker, the finale of a trilogy that started with 2015’s The Force Awakens and continues with 2017’s The Last Jedi). Aiming to be a four-quadrant blockbuster that most appeals to families across the lucrative Christmas holiday frame, Cats has a lot riding on it for Universal.

With the Disney industrial complex controlling a vast plurality of this year’s global box office, and other once-surefire blockbusters like Dark Phoenix and Terminator: Dark Fate bombing left and right, the commercial viability of a movie like Cats has never been more uncertain. But with its exorbitant budget (which some clock as high as $300 million), questionable incorporation of cutting-edge CGI, and reliance on a pre-existing, in-some-quarters beloved IP, Cats is in many ways the final form of the 2019 blockbuster.

The lovechild of Hollywood business strategy, remake mania, and the modern hate-watch, it’s a potentially unprecedented gamble on the part of a major studio to sell audiences a bizarre vision under the auspices of “event” moviemaking. Did director Tom Hooper intend for it to turn out this way?

On paper, Cats (or at least a version of it that cost less than $300 million) makes perfect financial sense. Musicals are big business at the box office these days; just ask The Greatest Showman, an original movie musical which posted nearly 20 times its opening weekend by the time it left theaters and grossed over $400 million worldwide. And musicals in which anthropomorphic cats sing show tunes? Even bigger, if the $1.6 billion haul The Lion King collected this summer is any indication.

Besides, that cast is stacked, in a way more complex than your garden-variety studio-film roster. There are pop stars (Swift and Jason Derulo), British comedy hitmakers (James Corden, a reliable draw for late-night TV watchers, and Rebel Wilson, whom Pitch Perfect fans know well), upper-crust theater veterans (Dench and McKellen), and a certified Broadway belter (Jennifer Hudson) who’s been lined up for the express purpose of knocking “Memory,” maybe Cats‘s only well-known musical number, out of the park. Elba, it would seem, is the real dramatic draw, and his track record of playing cartoonish villains in big studio fare (this summer’s Hobbs & Shaw, Paramount’s Star Trek Beyond, and Disney’s The Jungle Book) speaks for itself.

And Hooper, at the helm, is the kind of safe choice that should have instilled confidence in Cats; his Les Miserables adaptation was an Oscar heavyweight, powering a similarly formidable cast to awards glory and racking up nearly half a billion at the global box office.

That all brings us to today’s trailer, which—coupled with the first look this past summer—promises Cats will be much, much stranger than anyone could have anticipated. If The Lion King was met with some criticism over the uncanny-valley effect of Donald Glover and Beyoncé speaking through photorealistic lions who only intermittently move their mouths, Cats might as well have a dedicated post code in that dreaded Hollywood canyon where technology approximates an object’s likeness without transferring any of its emotional realism. (Though the case can be made that the strangely tiny size of the felines, coupled with the oddness of their whiskered human faces and cat bodies, was always going to render “realism” a moot point.)

Will Cats be a box-office monster, breaking new records and endearing Webber’s musical to a new generation? Maybe so. Its first trailer’s been viewed more than 12 million times on YouTube, with 118K viewers giving it a thumbs-up of approval (and 314K others giving it a thumbs-down). That suggests a perhaps morbid curiosity on the part of many moviegoers, and it’s not like weird experiments haven’t paid off at Christmas before (look at Jim Carrey’s head-to-toe green fur in 2000’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas).

The alternative, that audiences reject Cats as being too weird, would be a crippling blow to Universal just one year after its mega-expensive steampunk fantasy Mortal Engines lost it nearly $175 million and became that year’s biggest bomb. But Cats, months ahead of it sending all manner of singing and dancing cat-human hybrids into theaters, has at least one thing that Mortal Engines never managed to secure: our attention.

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