– By James Powers –
It’s been a few weeks, so by now most of us have probably forgotten about the profound weirdness of Universal’s trailer for its upcoming big-screen treatment of Cats. But I haven’t forgotten. No, I refuse to forget; in fact, I’ve been thinking about it this whole time. There’s more to unpack within this collective cultural trauma and I intend to bring it to light. Mixed or downright negative reactions to trailers aren’t necessarily anything special, but this one in particular has probably elicited the biggest collective “lol wut?” (or “kill it with fire!!”) in years. It was such a zinger that people have even been offering tongue-in-cheek apologies to the Sonic trailer for giving it so much hate a few months back. This is big, people.
Some recent penitential YouTube comments on the Sonic the Hedgehog trailer
To be fair, while Cats is an egregious offender in the who-thought-this-was-a-good-idea department, it still has plenty of company there, being the latest and perhaps greatest in a wide array of ill-advised VFX adaptations throughout the past year or so. The other obvious example is, of course, Sonic the Hedgehog, but the recent update of The Lion King unquestionably qualifies as well with its unemotive (but so realistic (!!!)) animals. Critic Matt Zoller Seitz cites one of his kids getting to the heart of the matter, perhaps unintentionally, by observing that “sitting through the film was like watching a nature documentary on mute while the soundtrack to original ‘The Lion King’ played in the background.” Oof. If that’s not damning with faint praise, I don’t know what is.
I could go on, and in fact I will. Let’s not forget the big blue Will Smith scare, or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ Schwarzeneggery mouths, or even the rather squidgy updates of Lumiere and Cogsworth and Mrs. Potts in the 2017 version of Beauty and the Beast. There’s been a lot – a lot a lot – of talk about the “uncanny valley” in explaining these visual debacles, but that talk has been missing the broader point. Freaky character design is ultimately just the most visible symptom of a deeper illness. For every hilariously repellent misfire like Cats that sets Twitter ablaze, there’s plenty of just-plain-bad adaptations – like The Last Airbender, Ghost in the Shell or Dumbo – that dull the gleam of otherwise luminous IP. Not that I’m necessarily complaining: it can be a real thrill to watch multi-million dollar marketing campaigns fall on their faces. But if Hollywood can’t learn their lesson from the likes of Cats, Sonic or The Last Airbender, then it’s only a matter of time before someone decides to inflict a live-action Arthur upon us. And I’m pretty sure we’ll never recover from that.
It’s tempting to explain the problem by saying that people in Hollywood are just stupid sometimes. After all, it seems obvious on its face that giving Sonic the Hedgehog human teeth or rendering Pumbaa as a photorealistic warthog are pretty bad ideas. Yet these ideas made it all the way to production, all the way to marketing, under the greenlight authority of a lot of people, at least some of whom are presumably not stupid. Well okay, so maybe they’re greedy rather than stupid. Maybe these executives are drunk with power and pulling a Jurassic Park – so preoccupied with whether or not they could make The Lion King look like a BBC documentary that they never stopped to consider whether they should do that.
But as fun as it is to just chalk this up to money-grubbing studio suits who will shoot a remake at any franchise that moves, I think that explanation is a little trite. These weird decisions make more sense when you consider some of the deeper assumptions that Hollywood has been operating under recently – assumptions that have been reinforced by film and TV audiences, tech consumers, and social media users alike. To put it simply, pop culture at large has been trying its hardest to blur the lines between fantasy and reality, and audiences at large have been mostly applauding those efforts (or at least rewarding them with their money). But when a horror like Sonic or Cats suddenly pops out of the woodwork, we should take it as an indication that maybe those lines exist for a reason.
For decades now, the media-industrial complex (so to speak) has been following a simple yet bizarre mandate: to produce content that is larger-than-life, yet also immersively realistic. Entertainment has, of course, always been larger-than-life, whether it’s a Greek epic or Shakespearean tragedy or kabuki theater. And, of course, it’s always had an element of realism to it – if it didn’t speak to real life in some way or other, it wouldn’t be engaging as art. But somewhere in the last few decades, we all started to get obsessed with literal visual realism, and that obsession seems to have hit fever pitch recently.
From the massive HDTVs at Costco, to the visual effects employed by Netflix and HBO, to the absurd resolution specs on iPhone cameras, the tech that undergirds our pop culture has been relentlessly pushing for more clarity and verisimilitude, while also pushing for more dazzle and spectacle. Endgame’s Thanos may have the massive purple mug of a demigod, but we better be able to see the stubble on it when we freeze frame. The spooks of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark need to somehow translate the (very 2D) terror of Stephen Gammell’s illustrations into live action. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles need to have the bodies of… uh, ninja turtles… but also the real-life expressions of the dudes who voice them.
And this paradox finds applications outside of film as well. News outlets and the blogosphere are supposed to deliver objective facts; yet for their own survival, they must also deliver eye-grabbing headlines that compel viewers to click. Perhaps more insidiously, our Insta posts are expected to be authentically candid, yet also washed in the juicy light of impossibly perfect sunsets. This is the really scary thing: through social media, we’ve all become content creators, and so now we’re all beholden to make entertainment that is “realistic,” and a “reality” that is entertaining.
Thankfully, there are always genres and formats within entertainment that avoid this fool’s errand to some extent or other. Two in particular manage to do so by cheerfully ignoring visual realism altogether; namely, theater and animation. And these, not coincidentally, are the two genres in which the story of The Lion King has been wildly successful in years past (*cough cough*). Not that it’s impossible or even wrong to successfully combine entertainment with realism. But it definitely seems weird – if not downright delusional – for that feat to become the standard by which popular art is deemed successful. Yet the fact that Disney has been putting buckets of money into live-action remakes of animated classics – and making buckets back – while 2D animation has all but disappeared from theaters is a pretty strong indication that that is, indeed, the standard right now. After all, The Lion King is sitting comfortably at #2 almost a month after its release, despite remarkably middling reception.
So now this brings me back to Cats. The live-action adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s wildly popular stage musical clearly doesn’t understand why it was a musical in the first place; rather like how the rest of us apparently don’t understand why Disney’s animated classics were animated in the first place. But here it comes anyway, like a misbegotten mutant to warn us of our folly. Honestly, the more I think about it, the more perfect its timing seems. Just as we were oohing and aahing about Disney’s photorealistic African jungle, yet feeling quietly disappointed at how lame “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” looks now, Universal released its furry hellions upon us.
It’s almost as if they were deliberately trying wake us up to how dumb we’re being, though I doubt that’s actually the case. But whether or not it means to do so, the message from Cats comes loud and clear: “Careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.” We’ve reached the point where we’re more capable than ever of turning fantasy worlds into reality – 4K, hyperrealistic, immersive reality. Buuuuut…that might not always turn out as cool as we expected.
About the Author
James Powers is a staff writer for the Impacting Culture Blog, currently earning his MBA in Film Producing at JPCatholic as a member of the class of 2019.
For all articles by James, click here.