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No 2019 release has become as instantly infamous as Cats. On paper, a big-screen adaptation of one of the most popular musicals of all time — directed by an Oscar-winning filmmaker, no less — seemed like a sure thing. In fact, many in the industry even considered the movie a potential Oscar contender. Then they saw the footage for the first time.

Director Tom Hooper’s movie is famous for its surreal imagery. Cats is, of course, most notable because of the technology bringing the titular felines to life. But the film occasionally flirts with even deeper madness. But it’s star Rebel Wilson, not Hooper, who is actually behind arguably the most upsetting image in the film.

Rebel Wilson at the 'Cats' world premiere
Rebel Wilson at the ‘Cats’ world premiere | Roy Rochlin/FilmMagic

‘Cats’ is loaded with CGI human/cat hybrids

Onstage, Cats uses a combination of make-up and costuming to transform its cast of performers into characters with names like Skimbleshanks and Grizabella. But for the movie version, Hooper wanted to use modern technology to create realistic looking “digital fur.”

With a combination of straight-up CGI and motion capture, Cats aims to create life-like feline bodies for its actors. But as soon as the first trailer dropped, moviegoers and critics balked at the surreal look of the film’s cat-people. To many, the characters looked like something out of a horror film, rather than a PG-rated musical.

So, despite a cast of talented performers that includes Oscar winners Judi Dench and Jennifer Hudson, Cats fell remarkably flat at the box office. The film reportedly cost roughly $100 million to make. Yet, its worldwide total only reached $74 million, leaving Universal with a substantial loss.

Rebel Wilson contributed arguably the weirdest

The singing, dancing humanoid cats in the marketing may have kept audiences largely away from Hooper’s film. But those who actually did buy a ticket faced an even more bizarre image.

Early in the film, viewers meet Jennyanydots (Wilson), a seemingly lazy cat who spends her nights teaching elaborate song-and-dance numbers to the household’s mice and roaches. As she sings about her work, she pulls back a curtain to reveal her trained mice. Much to audiences’ shock, the characters aren’t just played by actors but by children augmented with CGI.

On the feature commentary for the Cats Blu-ray, Hooper revealed it was Wilson’s idea to cast children as Jennyanydots’ mice.

In the show, the cats play the mice, but of course, I thought it’d be fun to have the mice played by miniature humans. It was Rebel’s idea that they could perhaps be played by children, which I thought was brilliant. And I tried to stay true to my idea or conceit that, just as humans are playing cats, humans also are playing mice but they’re scaled-down again. But they also have fur on their faces so you get their real performances but also the sense of their mousiness from the design.

As if the notion of human children playing mouse-like mutants wasn’t startling enough, Cats makes it pretty clear Jennyanydots is threatening her smaller animal friends with death if they mess up their performances. We even see her eat one of the roaches just a minute or so after meeting the mice.

‘Cats’ has been named the worst film of 2019

Likely, Hooper and his team had faith in such creative decisions while making Cats. But it’s a testament to the disparity between what happens during production and what winds up on-screen. Maybe theoretically, children play the mice seemed like an interesting thought. The way Hooper executes it, the image provides an unsettling element to an intended comedic sequence.

No wonder many consider Cats one of the worst movies of 2019. The film already earned the top prize at the Razzies, which honors the worst cinematic achievements. Hooper’s film falls drastically short of working, but it also makes such admirably bold, albeit ill-conceived, decisions. Cats may even find a new “jellicle” life as a cult classic, in part thanks to strange, horrific imagery such as the mice.