On the eve of December 20, many of my friends were out watching Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker. But where was I? Seeing Cats instead.
Before I was a sci-fi nerd, I was a singer. And then an actress. And then a theater major. I’ve made the choice to shelve the stage life during my children’s little years. But when I watch a musical on TV or have the pleasure of seeing one on stage, I can barely sit still. I feel like Quicksilver from X-Men—all twitchy and ready to jump in at any moment.
For me, watching Cats was (mostly) dreamy and euphoric. The sets were gorgeous, the performances perfection. I especially liked that they deepened the plot and raised the stakes. I could have gone without Rebel Wilson and James Corden as they didn’t match the feel of the film, but those are minor infractions in the grand scheme of things. Not to mention this new version is legit fantasy now since they added a magical villain and gave Mr. Mistoffelees real magic as well.
But—truth be told, the message in this story is a hot mess.
The good and bad within the songs and goals resembles a jumbled plate of spaghetti. I’m going to attempt to disentangle its pieces, but someone will probably walk away from this review thinking, “That’s not what that song meant!”
One cat’s quest: an idolatrous yet sympathetic desire for happiness
The basic, spoiler-free plot is a group of “Jellicle” cats that introduce themselves through song to newcomer, Victoria (Francesca Hayward). Each cat who sings is throwing their name into the hat for a second life—eventually chosen by Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench). Most cats are beloved by all with the exception of, Macavity (Idris Elba), and Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson). Much to everyone’s chagrin, Victoria takes a liking to the shunned Grizabella.
The first installment of Grizabella’s despairing song, “Memory” (one of the biggest Broadway hits of all time), tells of her past as a glamour cat and her present longing for her beautiful youth and happiness. What’s striking about this part of the story is how destitute and rejected she’s become over the years. Not only because she’s no longer accepted by the other cats, but because she seems to exist only on memories of past happiness and the thought that tomorrow the sun will rise again.
But in all this darkness, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber weaves one single ray of hope: “I must think of a new life, and I mustn’t give in.” While in the midst of longing for her past happiness and beauty, she has a sliver of hope for another life granted by the revered cat, Old Deuteronomy.
Grizabella’s story is not an easy one to understand, and its moral message is not straightforward. On the one hand, she has become destitute because she is no longer beautiful. It seems that was all that made her happy in life—vanity, a chasing after the wind (Ecclesiastes 1:14). On the other hand, she seems to be asking for love and acceptance by the other cats who hate her. And that is what makes the viewer sympathetic to her plight.
How does this hold up against the Bible? The Christian life should not be one of looking back at what we had, but of what we will have in eternity. Grizabella manages to do a little of both, but not very well. Cats such as Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson) are only interested in continuing their happy life exactly as it is one more time.
An argument could be made that this is a beautiful story of new life, but that is only half of it. We first have to ask, “Is the rebirth into a second life spoken of in Cats the same kind that Christians look forward to?” I think not. It’s implied that the second life is one that will happen again on earth. Old Deuteronomy herself is said to have lived ninety-nine lives. It is also implied that the chosen cat will have a chance to live the best part of their life again. If anything, this resembles Buddhism more than Christianity.
Not to mention only one deserving cat gets this great gift. Yet the beauty of the gospel is that Christ died so the undeserving sinners of the world might live, not just one more life, but an eternal life of more happiness than we could ever dream of right now. Compared to such awesomeness, the gift offered in Cats is an ugly thing.
Only Jesus can fulfill the promise of freedom and joy
After the movie was over, I got in my car and turned on one of my favorite worship songs, “Bright As The Sun,” by Hillsong Worship. I was struck by the similarity in the language to the movie I’d just watched and the stark contrast of the messages:
“Now mine is the life You raised, yours the glory that took down that grave. Bright as the sun almighty in love, God forever Your Kingdom come. My heart burns wild in my chest in awe of Your heart in all that You are. Let Your praise run wild on my breath.”
Not only was the idea of new life and the rising sun mirrored, yet warped, in “Memory,” but my thoughts snagged even more on the idea of wildness. In the new song written by Andrew Lloyd Webber for the film, “Beautiful Ghosts,” Victoria says, “But I feel so alive with these phantoms of night. And I know that this life isn’t safe but it’s wild and it’s free.” For our society, wildness and freedom mean unbound by rules, tradition, and free to act outside of any moral norm. That is the kind of freedom often exhibited by these cats.
But for the Christian, “wild” implies an all-consuming passion and zeal for the Lord that desires to be set free from our mouths. That kind of freedom is loosed from the bondage of our depravity—our sin nature. Unlike society that idolizes freedom from God, the Christian prioritizes freedom to love and worship God apart from sin. It is wild insofar as the message of the gospel runs rampant from our lips. Not only that, but C. S. Lewis goes to far as to call Aslan wild: “He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.”
So is there anything good in Cats? Absolutely! Even if the story wrongly elevates idols such as the past (Grizabella, Gus, etc.) and present (Jennyanydots, Bustopher Jones, etc.), it also shows moments of real beauty within the darkness—and it’s not just because the cast are all such great dancers. Victoria’s openness and loving attitude toward all the cats eventually endears her to lowly Grizabella. The affection during this reconciliation is powerful and moving in all the right ways. If only I could say more on this without giving away spoilers!
Are you planning to see Cats? I would love to hear your thoughts on the message, so drop a comment below!