A Summer in Ohio

The Meaning of CATS

I've figured it out

Anthropomorphism has always worked for us. Since the Upper Paleolithic we’ve been drawing animal-human hybrids and sculpting bodies of men with lion heads and telling stories of beasts who can love or deceive. This year’s The Lion King is now Disney’s highest-grossing animated movie of all time, making $1.6 billion worldwide. Despite the gorgeous photorealism of the CGI remake, reviews of the film appear mixed. Many critics complained about the lack of facial expression on the animals; more than one used the term “hollow.” Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian said he found the film “watchable and enjoyable. But...  missed the simplicity and vividness of the original hand-drawn images.” Was anyone surprised the disappointment? We’d rather see animals look like us than look like themselves.

In retrospect, this was our great folly in how we approached CATS. We had not seen the original musical; we had seen the trailer, perhaps, on a tiny screen in the comfort of our homes or on our lunch breaks at work. We assumed (reasonably!) that CATS was another playful exploration of the myriad ways cats are just like us, how their lives can be organized in a linear fashion, what they might say to us, how they might love or deceive. We assumed CATS to be an anthropomorphic study. In this, we were devastatingly, catastrophically wrong.

When we went to see CATS, we were high. We sat in a too-close row of the theater or all the way in the back. We shut our eyes through the Trolls and Dr. Doolittle trailers until we heard the film’s sinister opening notes. We stayed in our seats as the camera wound around darkened street corners of an unspecific London neighborhood. When the first cat appeared, we screamed and reflexively threw our hands up in the air, as if to block an attack. We didn’t know it yet, but this cat’s name was Munkustrap. 

It was when Munkustrap began to sing that we realized two things simultaneously: 

1) Munkustrap was speaking English.
2) We could not understand what Munkustrap was saying.

I am not the first to point out the film’s general incoherence. Some sober, straight people highlighted the garbled grammar of T.S. Eliot’s freaky “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” the original CATS source material, combined with the movie’s generally subpar audio. Surely the audience is meant to understand what Munkustrap is saying, right? It just takes a little work, some better sound, some time to learn the rhythm of the language. Surely the film is meant to remain squarely on planet Earth?

We were not so easily swayed. The true reason for Munkustrap’s incomprehensibility dawned on us fast. This was not a movie about cats living like humans. This was a movie about humans living like cats.

The first time I announced my theory, I was sitting in my childhood living room the day after Christmas. Whenever I’m back in my hometown, I smoke a lot of weed, because merely passing through the Thousand Oaks city limits instantly re-traumatizes me. My immediate family and my grandmother were all sitting in various couches and chairs; Gabby, my siblings and I had all just gotten back from CATS. I was smoking another joint. My mother and my sister were arguing about “which religion was right.” My parents’ dog leapt into my lap and I began to explain for the first time that which I am telling you now.

Here’s what my family and many well-meaning others are overlooking: The filmmakers behind CATS could have made the cats look like cats, but they deliberately make them look like humans. Note the human hands. Note the human faces. Note the human bodies and how often the cats stand on two feet. Well-meaning others have expressed their horror at these decidedly un-catlike features, but few dare to uncover why these choices were made, and why said-choices make us so uncomfortable. Even fewer of us admit that CATS had an effect on us, nay, continues to have an effect on us. So far, I alone am brave enough to acknowledge that the film is often successful in its true mission: dropping us, like kittens to a swimming pool, into the perverse psyche of a cat.

My credentials: I live with two cats. I love and take care of them. I celebrate them in all their furry weirdness, but I do not for a moment underestimate their potential to terrify. My cats stare blankly at walls; they tear around the house cat-screaming in the middle of the night, then burrow under the couch when I leave bed to investigate. They try desperately to escape through my front door but remain paralyzed in the living room when someone accidentally leaves it open. I readily believe my cat longs for the Heaviside Layer. If I saw my cat floating above the Seattle skyline in a hot air balloon/chandelier, I wouldn’t even blink.

It is CATS’ commitment to investigating what cats are actually like that disturbs families and delights gay stoners everywhere. The actors know this. The actors are too good at their jobs. They shift and curl in movements both fluid and disjointed; their facial features move independently of each other as they lick, hiss and wince. In abject misery/pleasure, we watched Rebel Wilson Cat take off her cat skin to reveal a second cat skin, which is something I imagine all cats can do but typically prefer to abstain. We watched Judy Dench Cat speak directly into the camera about dogs with malicious superiority. We felt hair begin to grow on the inside of our throats.

The spell was briefly broken with Taylor Swift’s rendition of “Macavity.” Taylor Swift does not know what it’s like to be a cat. Taylor Swift knows what it’s like to perform in a movie musical while wearing a furry costume. But we were plunged right back into the fantasy with magical Mr. Mistoffolees and his series of failed attempts to make Old Deuteronomy (Judy Dench Cat) materialize in front of him. The other cats sing the chorus of the Mr. Mistoffolees song no less than, we believe, seventy-six times. The other cats are all grinning at him as he stares with concentration at the spot in which he hopes Judy Dench Cat will appear, bobbing and purring and mewing words that are technically English but cannot and will not be interpreted. We suddenly thought to ask ourselves: Are our cats at home speaking English all the time? We thought it was just purring, but we are no longer so sure.

CATS settles it— we are not meant to know the true nature of beasts. God save the tortured soul who comes to know the ways of catkind. Better to imagine they’re really just like us.

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