July 19, 2019

Why the 'Cats' Trailer Horrified Everyone and How Something Like This Happens

The internet had an intense allergic reaction to "Cats" yesterday. But the story and its strangeness goes far beyond one trailer and into the heart of the creative process and marketing calculations.

Cats was a huge hit that seemed to run forever. Yet the investment in a major movie version of the musical looks today, after some intense online reactions, like a massive misstep. We'll take a look at the reactions, but we want to go a bit deeper because we think that's just scratching the surface (sorry). 

Back in January of this year, No Film School did a "most anticipated movies of 2019" round-up and I picked Cats for one of mine. Not for any reason other than the fact that I saw this reaction coming. 

Why? How? 

Because one day I googled Cats and I read the Wikipedia entry and I realized it wasn't just a play about dancing singing Cats. I mean... it was... but it was also so much weirder. 

 

 

There is stuff in there about a "Jellicle Choice" and the "Heaviside layer" with characters named "Rum Tum Tugger"...and honestly, it's all more confusing and weird than the opening crawl to Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and that's saying something.

But let's start with what happened yesterday. A massively expensive VFX laden trailer dropped with some of the biggest names in Hollywood and Music playing Cats and the internet had a complete meltdown over how bizarre it all was. 

Hollywood is more risk-averse than ever these days, so how and why did all of this go down quite this way? 

The Press Reacts to the Cats Trailer

Let's start with the headlines: 

From CNN: The 'Cats' trailer is here and it's horrifying the internet

The Atlantic: I Watched the Cats Trailer, and I Have Some Questions

The BBC: The Cats Movie Trailer is Much Weirder Than Anyone Expected

The Week: Downright nightmarish Cats trailer stuns critics: 'My eyes are bleeding'

Adweek: Cats Movie Trailer Unites the Internet Under One Shared Message: ‘WTF Did I Just Watch?’

The Root: Cats Trailer: This Is Nightmare Fuel

The Boston Globe: 'Cats' Trailer Unites the Internet in Abject Terror

The New York Post: The ‘Cats’ movie looks absolutely terrifying

Jezebel: This Is Obscene

The gist of all of these 'reactions' is that while yes, Cats the musical was always weird, adding in the cinematic elements the trailer does, including what seems like very expensive "digital fur", makes things go from weird to weirder...to weirdest. 

 

Buzzfeed (who else?) did a round-up of the reactions on Twitter which ranged from echoing the same horrified sentiment as the major news outlets to some very solid jokes and recuts that included creepier music. Because it wasn't creepy enough. 

What's the Deal With Cats

Okay, so you didn't come to No Film School to get a recap of Twitter reactions to a trailer, but that is a big part of the narrative here. 

Cats isn't just weird now that it's this major movie with digital fur on Taylor Swift in what feels like something created entirely for Furries. 

It's been weird since it began in 1982. Wait, no. 

It's been weird since 1939 when T.S. Eliot wrote it as a book of 'whimsical' poems called "Old Possums Book of Practical Cats"

Yes that T.S. Eliot. The one who wrote an epic poem called The Wasteland, which makes you wonder if he was involved in some kind of time warp where he saw the musical movie trailer for his Old Possum poem and then went back to 1922 to write The Wasteland. Maybe July is the cruelest month...

Yeah, so you could say this has been weird for a while. Who is Old Possum? Why are the Cats practical? I don't know. I don't even know if the musical addresses those things.

Andrew Lloyd Webber started creating the musical Practical Cats in the late 1970s, working without a lyricist (or a plot), because he had grown up with the T.S. Eliot poem. In an odd twist, Judy Dench was originally cast in Cats but an Achilles tendon injury had her step out. So her return to the movie version is something coming full circle: 

 

 

Webber was already an icon, but the success of Cats was unprecedented and eventually record-breaking. The show ran for 21 years with roughly 9,000 performances. It's been performed in 30 countries, translated into 15 languages, and seen by an estimated 73 million people. 

You've no doubt heard the stand-out song from the piece "Memories". 

 

 

So If Cats is Such a Mega Hit What's Up With This Reaction?

This is the important question, isn't it? 

With such a... pedigree... (sorry, had to), it's easy to see why a major studio forked over such a massive budget, and a star-studded cast signed on. 

 

You might look at Cats as an example of where blind loyalty to the business of nostalgia and previously popular IP goes very wrong. Yes, Cats was big, maybe even bigger than big, but for whom, and does that audience exist now in full force ready to go see it as a movie? 

The answer might still be yes. Cats may have a solid debut, pulling in older fans of the musical, as well as younger people who love stars like Jennifer Hudson and Taylor Swift. The calculation may still be correct, and the risk minimal. 

The reaction culture of the internet is just another large slice of a very large pie. Which leads us to another question or thought, which is that we may often think that movies and TV need to fit into one or two boxes we are most familiar with, but there are many very large boxes we don't consider as often. 

For example, you don't need everyone who sees a Marvel movie to see a movie for it to be a hit. There are enough people in the world to show up for a variety of content. We'll see how Cats does, and it could do poorly which would indicate that the marketing was perhaps to blame, maybe the audience didn't exist, and maybe the whole thing was a miscalculation. Surely many people who are debriefing on yesterday will debrief again.

 

 

But whatever the results are, it makes sense for us to look at the big picture here as filmmakers and storytellers. It may be that the 'reaction' culture only feeds into the industry's risk-averse nature. It may also be that as long as studios are going to spend money on a musical about dancing anthropomorphized Cats, one hopes they'd also take some smaller risks on some other weird stuff as well. In the meantime, here is the trailer if you haven't seen it yet. 

Your Comment

20 Comments

Horrifying. Couldn't finish it.

July 19, 2019 at 2:53PM

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Jan Becker
DP, Director, Producer
490

Would you mind explaining why this is horrifying? I'm trying to see another perspective.

July 20, 2019 at 11:26PM

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Dantly Wyatt
Musical Comedy & Content Creator.
854

The trailer neither amazed nor shocked me.
If I can deal with monsters, aliens, zombies, strange things, orgs and what not,
I sure can handle watching some cats with famous actor faces dancing around and singing.
The movie itself might be as bad as it gets, but the reactions to this trailer are a bit snobbish...

July 19, 2019 at 7:36PM, Edited July 19, 7:36PM

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I completely forgot something like Cats existed. Thanks for reminding me... :-X

July 20, 2019 at 2:52AM

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Gerard M.
1324

yes

July 20, 2019 at 6:07AM, Edited July 20, 6:07AM

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Great article.
bad dancing to bad music what could possibly go wrong?
sometimes what happens on the stage should stay on the stage.
As for the trailer :
I have my own nightmares , thank you.
i don

July 20, 2019 at 11:31AM, Edited July 20, 11:31AM

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Very well written. My first reaction to this trailer, after a friend showed me in horror, was if there are people crazy enough to like the musical, someone has to like this movie. If anything, the negative press may help it get a bigger turnout at the box office.

July 20, 2019 at 11:08PM

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Craig Douglas
Editor/ Videographer
1946

I just watched the trailer. I don't see what everyone is so horrified about other than it being a musical. I think the critics that criticized it may be a bit over dramatic. Or maybe I need to be a fan of the play to understand why?

July 20, 2019 at 11:25PM, Edited July 20, 11:27PM

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Dantly Wyatt
Musical Comedy & Content Creator.
854

I think because it`s just creepy. It looks like the faces of people have been slapped onto 3D characters and/or without proper scaling. Just look at the thumbnail: without the slightest amount of racism - don`t her lips look horribly big in relation the the rest of the face or the whole head?
BTW, I heard of this musical back in my childhood and wondered then who watches sh*t like this or stuff like "starlight express", another Andrew Lloyd Webber nightmare adapted from another children`s book. It´s probably made for a female target group.

July 21, 2019 at 8:27AM, Edited July 21, 8:30AM

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Gerard M.
1324

It seems to me that they used a Sonic trailer as a reference.

July 21, 2019 at 11:44PM

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Christian Flapton
screenwriter
142

Hollywood is dead and Sharknado has become the norm.

July 22, 2019 at 11:03AM

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From reading a lot of comments about the trailer, it almost seems like most people don't even know that's what they look like in the Musical. Humans in spandex with make-up and fur in oversized sets. I truly don't get the "horror". They could have literally done it like Phantom and just shot a theatrical version of the Musical, but what would be the point of that? The digital costumes are actually technically amazing. The sets are all real. Were people this outraged over Avatar? Cameron really suffered for that one=)

And people comparing it to Sonic...his movie self looked NOTHING like the character. They made him look almost like a human wearing a Sonic suit and mask. Sonic was/is a very exaggerated cartoon. The Cats on the other hand, are supposed to look like furry actors, only now they're better versions of the Cats from the Musical. I really don't get the problem, unless it's all simple ignorance of the source material. Oh well. All I know is, the Furry crowd must be having a heart attack waiting for this=)

July 22, 2019 at 4:48PM, Edited July 22, 4:49PM

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Josh.R
Motion Designer/Predator
1030

Amen!

July 25, 2019 at 1:58PM

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I agree with some others here that, while none of this seems necessary, not to mention a bad idea in terms of the CG aspect, it's nowhere NEAR horrifying. I mean... Since when did "in poor taste" have to equal Terrifying anyway? It's more about people trying to have a snarky Twitter headline than anything else. A culture so obsessed with trying to one-up everyone else's reaction to a mere movie? That actually IS a little horrifying haha. OK, it's not. It's just sad.

And the poems? NOT creepy or weird at all, but really very clever and funny. For one thing they were more like poems for kids, but anyone who's owned a cat could easily can relate to the funny little characters that Elliot made up. They literally go no farther than that. It was just him having some fun, like a great painter doodling on a napkin. So then that leaves the original musical...

Well, sure it was a little odd, but isn't ANY play where everyone breaks into song and dance every few minutes odd? It took a set of poems with no arc or story other than that they were about some fanciful cat characters and just glommed on a loose "story" on top. But really- most musicals don't have all THAT much in the way of stories anyway. I've never been a fan of musicals, though as a kid I saw Cats and thought it was pretty cool. And that's where Cats as a concept should have ended; on the stage. If Cats really "needed" to come back (which I don't see why it would) then the stage was where it should come back to, not the screen and not with CG fur.

July 22, 2019 at 6:41PM

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Douglas Bowker
Animation, Video, Motion-Graphics
437

And to the author of this article: Really? "Who is Old Possum?" In the link YOU provided it tells you right there!
"Eliot wrote the poems in the 1930s, and included them, under his assumed name "Old Possum", in letters to his godchildren."

July 22, 2019 at 6:43PM

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Douglas Bowker
Animation, Video, Motion-Graphics
437

The overwhelming visceral reaction to the trailer demonstrates that there is something unarguably off-putting in the visual execution of these characters. While it might be technically impressive re: digital furscaping, the designers don't seem to have blended the anthropomorphic aspects cohesively.

The stage musical - a product of the 80s' neon colours, lycra and big hair - looks like a fun blend of anime and Cirque de Soleil. We are definitely looking at humans, costumed and made up in such a way as to beam fantastical fun in which we can suspend our disbelief. Most notable in the actors' transformations is the heavily contoured face makeup - removing the aspect of 'human' enough for us to go along on this whimsical ride, but never limiting expressiveness. I don't think we're ever meant to think, "Yes, this is all about cats." It's a character journey in a bizarre setting ... that just happens to have ears and waist-hung tails.

Later iterations of the stage show have used embellished clothing to represent individual character qualities. But not trying to emulate fur or broadcast, "We're actual cats."

The marketing for this film has gone hard on "you will believe they are cats", while keeping everything under wraps. Yet the designs in the trailer emphasize the human facial features.

Facial expression is the strongest connecting point in character storytelling, regardless of species - it's all about the execution. But by keeping the face relatively unaltered, the designers seem to have missed the point of their own approach (something Disney took to the other extreme with their recent The Lion King, since the realistic looking lion have drastically limited expressiveness). The 'cat' faces here look bland compared to all other aspects in this world. Human faces with whiskers are as off-putting as the first time you ever saw a Sphinx Cat (genetically mutated hairless cat). There's just something not right about it.

Next - the Cats trailer fur technology just isn't furry enough. While aiming for a kind of reality (cat-ratio furniture and sets), the designers seem to have missed that real cats have thick, luxurious pelts which DISGUISE their body shapes. So, this trailer verges on nudity.

We're shown clearly human faces, on clearly human yet lightly fur-covered bodies - but they have ears that flicker and well-muscled tails that flex (especially at the base of the spine - we all know what hides beneath is the funniest part of cat anatomy - another layer of discomfort in this trailer, since my mind 'filled in the gaps' of what we were seeing).

And then there are varying degrees of clothing apparel on some, while others remain completely 'naked'.

The opening shot shows human shapes on 'all fours', and then most of the rest of the movement is two-legged. Another seeming incongruity.

Perhaps it's these incongruities in all their cat vs. human detail that provoke such an averse responses.

Beyond all the designs, the main character seems to be a wide-eyed ingenue flitting about while others do their thing. Great choreography, singing and cinematography, for sure. But, it looks extremely trope-ridden. And, as many have observed, there doesn't seem to be a story.

July 22, 2019 at 7:52PM, Edited July 22, 7:59PM

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While investigating the CG oddities of this trailer, I discovered that the US version of the Youtube trailer is HIGHLY compressed, barely 1,400Kbps. This creates a very muddy image, so you never actually see the full quality of the CG work. Some quick Googling revealed 4K versions of the trailer with MUCH better quality. I hoped that some of the issues people encountered in the 1080p trailer (the weird faces, the terrifying cat-people-bodies) would be lessened by seeing the trailer in full resolution without compression artifacts. I can happily announce that even in 4K, this trailer is super, super weird. That Rebel Wilson scene is so cringey I don't even know. May God have mercy on us all.

July 25, 2019 at 11:25AM

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I do not know why all the fuss. One, apparently the negative reviews are coming from people who never saw Cats on stage. The story takes place at night in a junkyard. The costuming and make up were similar to what you see on the screen. There was basically a minuscule plot; the play was basically a review, meaning there was no dialogue and no plot. The movie seems to be trying to create a bigger plot and, because it is a movie and can move from a stage and a theater that has been set up to look like a junkyard there are now a variety of locations. Jennifer Hudson's vocals for Memory, the 11 o'clock number sung by Grisella (originally the fabulous Betty Buckley, who is currently finishing her run in the tour production of Hello Dolly), was wonderful. I can't wait to see this adaptation. I wish people who do not know musicals, respect, or like musicals would stop trying to review movie musicals.

July 25, 2019 at 1:55PM

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I live in the USA and we have Trump for a President. Nothing is more horrifying to me than that. CATS the movie, bring it on.

July 25, 2019 at 2:48PM

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Dave Stanton
DP
249

I just watched the trailer and I zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

July 26, 2019 at 2:38PM

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