Editor’s Note: Jeff Yang is a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion, a featured writer for Quartz and other publications, and the co-host of the podcast “They Call Us Bruce.” He co-wrote Jackie Chan’s best-selling autobiography, “I Am Jackie Chan,” and is the editor of three graphic novels: “Secret Identities,” “Shattered” and the forthcoming “New Frontiers.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. Read more opinion articles on CNN.
The trailer for “Cats,” the movie adaptation of the long-running Broadway musical, has hit the Internet, and, well, let’s just say the Internet hit back. As the hashtag #CatsMovie trended worldwide, Twitter exploded with phrases like “creepy and weird,” “car crash” and “nightmare fuel.”
It’s a case of the arts ignoring science: There’s a very real psychological phenomenon behind the horrified reactions, which director Tom Hooper might well have researched before embracing the film’s admittedly bizarre creative choices.
Rather than taking the stage version’s path of using makeup and costumes to turn actors into figurative felines, Hooper decided to use “digital fur technology” to fluff out stars like Jennifer Hudson, Judi Dench, Jason Derulo, James Corden and, yes, Taylor Swift with catlike bodies while leaving their faces largely human. The resulting hybrids have ears and swishing tails but human hands and feet – and, as many pointed out, jiggly human décolletage.
Add the fact that some of the cat-things wear clothing and shoes – and others are resplendent in sleek bare fur – and some odd inconsistencies with scale, and it’s all a bit much for aficionados of the Andrew Lloyd Webber original (and even for some members of the subculture of anthropomorphic-animal enthusiasts known as “furries.”).
If “Cats” didn’t want to go with humans in makeup, it could’ve pounced in the other direction, toward the hyper-realist animal animation of Disney’s recently released “The Lion King” remake, which, despite its own detractors, certainly managed to prove that authentic-looking cats can sing and dance.
But the in-betweenness of the cats of “Cats” is deeply disconcerting, because it causes them to roam in the shadows of a phenomenon called the uncanny valley. First described by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Masi in 1970, it is defined as a level of semi-realistic human appearance in nonhuman things that triggers instinctive terror or visceral disgust.
That’s because when something humanoid looks clearly inhuman, we can differentiate it from “real” humans and thus safely assign it the characteristic of being a “thing.” And when it’s truly indistinguishable from human, we’re also not concerned about it, because we simply read it as human.
But entities in the range between these two poles, the not-quite-human, generate unsettling reactions, which is why horror films often feature human-shaped inhumans such as zombies, killer dolls (Chucky and Annabelle) and eerie clowns (“It”). All of these are entities that lurk in the uncanny valley, nibbling grotesquely at the edges of our unconscious.
The uncanny valley is why CGI animation titan Pixar has resisted trying to make movies with photorealistic human characters, choosing instead to lean into more stylized and cartoonish character designs, despite technological advances that make near-perfect realistic human depictions possible. Pixar’s sibling companies Marvel and Lucasfilm leveraged this tech to de-age Samuel L. Jackson for the “Captain Marvel” movie and to “resurrect” Peter Cushing, who died in 1994, to reprise his role as the villainous Grand Moff Tarkin for the 2016 “Star Wars” prequel “Rogue One.”
In “Cats,” digitally altered thespians are everywhere, squarely centered in the spotlight, capering and caterwauling, spouting psychedelic dialogue and belting out diva-worthy ballads. From this uncanny valley, there’s no escape.
It’s too soon to say that the film is doomed to failure, however. After all, the original stage musical was an oddity of its own, with an acid-trip fantasy of a storyline about cats gathering to select a candidate to ascend to the afterlife, with characters named Bombalurina, Mungojerrie, Rumpleteazer and Bustopher Jones, and nonsensical song lyrics like “Jellicle Cats meet once a year / At the Jellicle Ball where we all rejoice / And the Jellicle Leader will soon appear / And make what is known as the Jellicle Choice.”
And yet the musical managed to run for more than 7,500 performances over almost two decades, making it the longest-running musical on Broadway for its era – until it was eclipsed by another Webber production, “Phantom of the Opera.”
As others have pointed out, the movie adaptation might be strange and ridiculous, but so too was its source. It could well be that the movie “Cats” will end up being a surprise hit, fueled in part by the lurid fascination that the trailer has incited among viewers who might have otherwise ignored it.
And then? Then we might get a movie adaptation of the only Andrew Lloyd Webber musical that exceeds “Cats” in freakiness: the humans-on-roller-skates-dressed-as-trains musical “Starlight Express.”