Even before it came out in theatres in 2019, Cats was making headlines—for being bad. When the first trailer was released, fans were amazed at how strange the CGI effects, cat costumes, and overall atmosphere were. Twitter users called the film “nightmare fuel” and “demonic” even with less than four minutes of video content. Needless to say, things weren’t looking good for Cats.
The criticism didn’t stop when the film came out. Despite being released at Christmastime, a slot usually reserved for the biggest movies of the year, Cats made an abysmal amount of money on its opening weekend: only $6.2 million. Compared to its $3 million budget, this was a sad amount. Viewers hated it. Mark Joseph Stern said on Twitter, “I really don’t think you can understand how freaky and wrong it is until you see it.”
How did this movie go so wrong? In many ways, it was actually promising. Cats the musical was incredibly successful both on Broadway and other musical theatre communities. For a time, it was one of the longest running musicals of all time. It won Tony awards and inspired millions of theatre fans ever since its release in 1981.
Cats had the clout and the fanbase to become a successful movie. With a huge budget and tons of anticipation, it should have gone well. The cast is also stacked with big-name actors: Judi Dench, Taylor Swift, Idris Elba, Ian McKellen, and James Corden, to only name a few. These are Oscar winners, Grammy stars, and some of the most highly regarded celebrities of our time.
Tom Hooper—the man behind acclaimed movies like Les Miserables and The Danish Girl—directed Cats. Instead of becoming an Oscar contender, however, Hooper ended up winning two Golden Raspberry awards: both for Worst Director and Worst Screenplay. Those are two pretty big statements.
What happened to Cats? Why was it so bad, with such a fantastic team behind it? It received so much criticism that Andrew Lloyd Webber, the original creator of the show, called Cats “ridiculous.” Much of the criticism comes from two things: the CGI (the chat feline costumes in the movie were horrible), and the failure to acknowledge their mistakes.
When the 2020 Sonic the Hedgehog movie trailer first came out, fans hated it—really hated it. The CGI version of their beloved hedgehog didn’t look right, and the movie was immediately poorly regarded by almost everyone. In response to this, the creators of the new film actually went back on their original design, and created something new. They redesigned the entire character. Jeff Fowler, the director of the film, said on Twitter, “Thank you for the support. And the criticism. The message is loud and clear... you aren't happy with the design & you want changes. It's going to happen.” This was a great move.
When Cats received similar criticism, they changed nothing—this was their big mistake. The famous actors, previous acclaim, and well-regarded director couldn’t save them from their bad CGI. This is pretty much the whole reason why Cats tanked.
There were a few different complaints about the visual effects. Most of the criticism came from the choice to meld the human and animal look by creating strange, person-cat hybrids. This was okay with the original cat costumes of the musical, because costumes were all they had; the fur-covered catsuits did the job just fine to turn the characters into cats. However, Cats decided to use the technology they had—and it was bad.
The first time the movie was actually released, they had to re-release it because of all the CGI mistakes. Tom Hooper even revealed that the movie was actually finished less than a day before the world premiere—this is very, very obvious. Some human hands were still present, the depth perception was off in some of the dance scenes, and one of the extras was still fully human.
Even the purposeful CGI was bad. Fans hated the “weird nudity” that the cats had: they had human-shaped bodies but were covered in only fur. The female cats had breasts and all. Some also said that their heads looked too big for their bodies. The actors also had to learn how to move and dance like cats, but this turned out to be another element that just added to how strange it was.
People walked out of theatres that were barely filled to begin with. The internet was obsessed with talking about the movie, but with only criticism and hate. The actors themselves didn’t like the movie they were in—it was obvious.
This may be another fault of Cats. The big-name actors may have been able to say they were part of something historic—this ended up being true, in the opposite way. A few actors, in the most lowkey ways possible, shared with the public that they hated the movie. James Corden said on his show that even though he enjoyed making the movie, he gave it a 4.5 out of 10. That is not a passing grade.
Could Cats have been saved at all? It’s hard to say. Nonetheless, it will go down in history as one of the worst film releases of all time. It was poorly approached and handled in a lot of different ways. Perhaps it will end up like The Room: so horrible that it ends up with a cult following. Only time will tell what kind of legacy Cats will leave.