Why Are We All So Unsettled By The Cats Movie Trailer?

Over the past week, the Internet has been slowly losing it’s mind over the release of the trailer for the upcoming Cats Movie Musical. The movie is of course an adaption of the sung-through musical composed by theatre-guru Andrew Lloyd Webber, based on the Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot.

There is no world in which Cats is not a bizarre concept, personally, I would never feel comfortable pitching the story, nor the musical, to a multimillion-dollar production house.

We follow a gang of mangy cats called the ‘Jellicles’ (please don’t ask why they are called that, there is no rhyme or reason), played by adult humans, who on one special night a year must make the ‘Jellicle Choice’ of deciding which bloody cat they’ll choose to send to bloody heaven through The Heaviside Layer (see: the layer of ionised gas occurring between roughly 90 and 150 km above the ground — one of several layers in the Earth’s ionosphere)? So. They. Can. Be. Born. Again.

I hope they are all up to date with how many of their 9 lives they each still have.

Admittedly, that’s not what I originally thought Cats was about. Hell, even after seeing the production live on stage, I didn’t realise we were watching a group of cats basically plead to be killed off so they can start their lives over.

When I was in the audience of Cats, I was fully there with them initially, at the start, when the musical opens with the cats having a cat meeting.

Strong start, cats like to have meetings.

I understood that they then introduced themselves one by one, and had to explain how they all got their wildly random names, which is very fun but not actually much relevant to the plot.

And I was still there with them, when Old Deuteronomy (old boss cat who has clearly used up nearly all 9 lives) arrived at the ‘Jellicle Ball’ (on the once a year cat death evening) to pick a special cat. It was the total madness after this, that got me a bit lost…

The musical continues by describing a bunch of random cats and their origin stories, specifically the disliked Grizabella Cat. Then Skimbleshanks (the unofficial railway cat? Is there an official one they haven’t introduced?) arrives on the train to distract from the tragic cat backstories.

Skimbleshanks The Railway Cat, Macavity The Napoleon of Crime, & Mr. Mistoffelees a magical cat…

After a fun train song, things take another serious turn, and our cats have to fight an evil cat (Macavity) and call upon a magician cat to sort things out (Mr Mistoffelees). Then we’re back to the ‘Jellicle Ball’, where Grizabella, who was previously outcast by the other cats, makes her final plea to the Jellicles for a new life in the only distinctively memorable moment of the musical, the famed song Memories.

Guarantee this performance, especially by Elaine Paige, is worth the wait through the confusion that is Cats.

Finally, after an emotionally rousing performance, Grizabella is chosen by Old Deut to ascend to the Heaviside Layer, and be reborn. Boom. Curtains close.

But that incredibly confusing, and not completely child friendly, plot is not what the Internet has a problem with in the upcoming film. No. They’re cool with that.

The big concern is how they look. The cats. Well, the humans, playing cats, that look nothing like cats, because well… they are adult humans.

I’m 12% sure the one on the right is just Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter from Alice In Wonderland. Not cat-like in the slightest.

In saying this, I am aware that becoming a realistic house cat is a hard lewk for a human to pull off, and the musical originally recognised this issue and adapted adequately. The use of quite intricate and stylised makeup, a wig to suggest the presence of feline fur and ears (note: very key element), a unitard, and patches resembling body fur through the use of arm and leg warmers and coats, gave the audience an idea that though we are watching humans perform, they are very clearly meant to be cats, and not just any cats, cats with wacky names and personalities.

The choreography of the musical was also a key element in separating the cat from the human performer, which is lacking in the trailer, with original choreographer Gillian Lynne choosing to use ballet, modern, tap, and acrobatic styles and blend these with actual cat movement, physicality, and behaviours. Me-OWWW!

Between the specific cat-like choreography and the over the top furry feline costumes, the musical allowed the audience to easily interpret the performers as cats.

But along comes the movie. And inevitably, along comes CGI.

Though computer-generated imagery has been a blessing to the entertainment world, allowing us to fully immerse ourselves in worlds like Harry Potter and the Marvel Universe, the use of it in Cats has appeared to condemn this move, right from the get-go.

I am assuming choosing CGI over the use of a dozen makeup artists may have saved some time and money, but it has given the cats an eerie, and unlikable, alien-like appearance.

Blending the human face into a cats, like a face-swap app; smoothing out the costumes so it appears to all be one ‘skin’; and unnecessarily emphasising human features of the actors, that cats don’t necessarily have, are probably the big three issues the CGI has created for our feline friends.

So even though we are all aware that the cats are played by humans and always have been, and that they have been bedazzled with CGI, the look of these cats has left audiences with an unnerving feeling.

That unnerving feeling towards the CGI cats is an excellent example of the Uncanny Valley. What is The Uncanny Valley you ask? Well, it is:

“A hypothesised relationship between the degree of an object’s resemblance to a human being and the emotional response to such an object. The concept of the uncanny valley suggests that humanoid objects which imperfectly resemble actual human beings provoke uncanny or strangely familiar feelings of eeriness and revulsion in observers. Valley denotes a dip in the human observer’s affinity for the replica, a relation that otherwise increases with the replica’s human likeness.”

MacDorman, K. F.; Chattopadhyay, D. (2016). “Reducing consistency in human realism increases the uncanny valley effect; increasing category uncertainty does not”. Cognition. 146: 190–205. doi:10.1016

I believe we all feel that these cats are both uncanny and eerie.

Something is just not quite right…

The Uncanny Valley is the reason why robots are made to look industrial and not like humanoids; it’s the reason why stuffed animals are cute and fun, but puppets or ventriloquist dolls that are genuinely realistic keep you awake at night. As the cats become closer to being indistinguishable from real humans, the greater the risks of having audiences feel cold and eerie towards the characters.

Note: none of these cat look like a healthy person, nor do they look like an actual cat. Concerning.

Unfortunately the Cats movie have landed themselves in the deep, deep trenches of the Uncanny Valley, and unless they decide to throw some REAL fur leg warmers and a giant cat wig on poor Francesca Hayward, I will be unable to appreciate the fact that she is an incredible ballerina and solely focussed on her freaky alien physique.

Stop it guys, you are upsetting me!

In case you thought things for the Cats movie weren’t dire enough, James Corden (my least favourite Tony’s host) will be playing the fat upper-class cat Bustopher Jones, who by description, enjoys leisurely frequenting gentlemen’s clubs. A cat. In a top hat. With James Corden’s face CGI’d onto it. Enjoying gentlemen’s clubs. Too much.

I’m sorry, whose idea was this?

Look, though the trailer has left me incredibly confused, highly concerned, and a little bit nauseous, I am not a coward and I can admit that I am actually someone who has always enjoyed this musical, no matter how bizarre it is.

The music is exquisite and hooks you right in, the talent required to perform the numbers is beyond comprehension, the fact that there is non-stop dancing in the production is always a highlight, and the set, though unchanging, entices you with its oversized junkyard props which you just know cats would enjoy hanging around. All reasons why Cats was an unprecedented commercial hit grossing over $3.5 billion worldwide by 2012, becoming the fourth longest running Broadway musical and sixth longest running West End Musical of all time, and also winning Best Musical at the Tony Awards and Best New Musical at the Olivier Awards in 1981.

Why not continue to cash in on the evident success?

I’ll give you one reason Tom Hooper – if you aren’t going to do it justice, don’t do it at all. Cats is iconic and I swear to God I will demand a refund, after I inevitably go to watch it at the movie theatre, if you ruin this insanely stupid story for me.

Since I know you are all as curious as I am about the movie, I look forward to seeing you all there in the theatre on December 20th.

And if you are yet to see it, please sit back and enjoy this rollercoaster ride that is the trailer for Cats The Movie here:

Thanks Universal Pictures, I haven’t slept a wink since this was released.

– Courtie