An orgy of throbbing tails: is Cats the kinkiest film to earn a U certificate?

Tom Hooper’s adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical is festive fun for all the family, according to the cinema ratings boards. So why are early audiences averting their eyes?

It was hard to anticipate audience reaction to the first screenings of Cats, Tom Hooper’s version of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. Would there be whoops and applause, particularly at the showstopping songs and big-budget staging? Or perhaps hoots of derision at the stars prancing and the heavy use of synth?

In fact, an agog silence dominated in London and New York cinemas, as critics struggled to process the images which had gone before. Key among the issues raised afterwards was the film’s apparently seething sexuality. One critic described proceedings as permanently on the brink of a sex party. Other reviewers were struck by Cats’s visual and tonal similarity to The Human Centipede, a horror film in which kidnap victims are stitched together mouth to anus.

The disquiet arises from Hooper’s visual decisions. The characters are neither recognisably cats nor – as in the stage show – humans dressed up as cats. Rather, they are gimpish hybrids with two key anatomical anomalies.

Rebel Wilson in Cats.
Rebel Wilson’s mog left audiences gasping. Photograph: Universal Pictures

First, although female breasts are in hairy evidence, nobody has any genitals, but rather smoothed, doll-like hollows where such organs might lie. This is particularly evident because the “cats” are mostly naked throughout; the muscled bodies of the actors bare save for a thick pelt of digital fur. One scene in which a nude Idris Elba thrusts his ripped torso and bottom at a quivering Judi Dench struck many as remarkably frank, despite Elba’s absent penis.

Second, while the tails in stage productions lay mostly limp or simply swished in the wind, the appendages in the film are strikingly prominent, jutting from just above their “human” buttocks, and straightening or relaxing to reflect the character’s emotion. One group scene sees scores of cats writhing ecstatically on the floor, erect tails rising and quivering as one. Another sequence features Rebel Wilson’s mog spread-legged, scratching her groin with her hands and caressing it with her own tail. She also uses a rigid string of uncooked sausages as a microphone before ripping off her own fur to reveal another layer of fur and a pink, sequinned teddy – a shot that left many gasping.

This confusion over what lies beneath the character’s pelts persists in scenes in which Dench’s already hirsute Old Deuteronomy walks around in an huge overcoat presumably fashioned from her own fur.

Despite this, the UK ratings board that determines the certification of films being released in cinemas deemed Cats suitable for everyone. The British Board of Film Certification (BBFC) rated it U for “very mild threat, rude humour and language”, while its US equivalent, the Motion Picture Association of America, opted for the second most accessible level: a PG, for “peril, some thematic elements and rude humor”.

The BBFC’s head of compliance, Craig Lapper, rejected suggestions that the board might have been too lenient. “There is no sexualisation of the cat characters and the dance routines are no more suggestive than what you would see in an average stage show, including the stage version of Cats, or prime-time TV programme. While there is some very mild threat, it’s brief and broken up by a mixture of comedy, singing and dancing. Any threat that does occur takes place within a highly fantastical context featuring people dressed up as singing cats.”

Lapper did concede that the BBFC was aware of some disquiet, but said they felt any erotic overtones inferred by adults would likely go over the heads of children.

“The fact that some people say they’ve found the use of CGI a little unsettling or uncanny is not really a classification matter for the BBFC, and we don’t think kids will find it as ‘freaky’ as some adults have.”

• Cats is released in the UK and the US on 20 December and in Australia on 26 December.


Catherine Shoard

The GuardianTramp

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