#NativeNerd movie reviews: 'CATS,' 'Togo' and 'The Rise of Skywalker'

Vincent Schilling

Weird humanoid cats, the Sith versus Jedi and a heroic husky named Togo

It’s time for my weekly Native Nerd movie reviews. As we move into the holiday season—and in the flurry of trying to find fun gifts for my loved ones  I still managed to squeeze in a few cool films, specifically, CATS, Togo and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.

It was a great week for movies, aside from the weird humanoid cats.

A note about my #NativeNerd scoring system

For my #NativeNerd scoring system, I employ ratings on the scale of one to ten using the decimal system to a tenth of a point. Since movies in my view deserve a bit more of a gradient scale, (i.e. they aren’t an eight but deserve a little more than a seven) I will give a score of 0.0 as the absolute worst, to 10.0, the absolute best.

CATS

6.8 out of 10

MY QUICK QUOTE: 
“The star power likely won’t save this non-Jellicle movie of 2019. A theatrical powerhouse, CATS didn’t translate well from theater to film. The songs were great, but the actors struggled to find an objective with the absence of any storyline. ”

SYNOPSIS:
A tribe of cats must decide yearly which one will ascend to the Heaviside Layer and come back to a new life.

CATS Movie Poster
CATS Movie Poster

To the horror of all the theater aficionados out there, I have to say I have never seen CATS in the theater. I have seen bits and pieces of CATS on YouTube and was always impressed by the magic of this theatrical production as it appears on Broadway, but all of this magic, I feel, was tragically lost in translation in the attempt to transfer the story from the stage to the silver screen.

I felt a love-hate relationship with CATS on the movie screen when I saw it Tuesday. There were a lot of reasons to like it, and a lot of reasons to love it, but also a few reasons to feel the opposite. I disliked the weird CGI that made the actor’s cat ears flutter in uneasy and almost disturbing ways and it was a bit too obvious that their human ears were hidden behind the tufts of hair on the side of the face.

I loved the songs, for the most part, but I felt that if the filmmakers were going to take the time to bring this to the movie theater, where is the story? 

The theatrics alone are not enough for filmgoers. The dance movements were exceptional and aesthetically pleasing, as the cat costumes gave an essence of the sleek and fluid cat-like movements made for this story.

But then the heads of the actors seemed a bit crammed into the character bodies, and the scale ratio of the movie sets seemed a little off-putting. It wasn’t as if the actors were the actual sizes of cats, but more like they were a bit too skinny in their limbs and more like a gibbon monkey than a cat when adjusting the movie sets for size. 

And the weird mice children and cockroaches likely fashioned after the Rockettes? Way too disturbing for me.

I did like the movie, but it just seemed to become more and more problematic as I thought about it in retrospect. 

Why were cats magically transported by Macavity, (played by Idris Elba) left there, and then never talked about again? Why did Old Deuteronomy, (played by Judi Dench) suddenly start singing to the movie crowd? Was it necessary to cast Rebel Wilson, Taylor Swift, and Ian McKellen? Unknown actors or the ones on Broadway playing the same characters would likely not have affected the moviegoer numbers and would have cost producers a lot less money.

And why did Jennifer Hudson as Grizabella hold back on singing Memories at full force for so long? Hudson has pipes that could out-sing anyone, but she wasted 90 percent of the song acting emotional and truly hit only one super strong note.

Overall, I just don’t think Hollywood will get the magic behind CATS. 

As I heard one lady say as she was leaving the press screening, “I don’t get it.”

I actually got it, the director was trying to emulate the theatrical production. But in this case, in the Hollywood film world of CGI, incredible special effects and more, I think people are forgetting the importance of an actual story.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

9.4 out of 10

MY QUICK QUOTE: 
“The best Star Wars episode since The Empire Strikes Back. With as much nostalgia as new story content, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker rose to the occasion full force. (Pun intended)”

SYNOPSIS:
The surviving Resistance faces the First Order once more as Rey, Finn and Poe Dameron's journey continues. With the power and knowledge of generations behind them, the final battle commences.

Star Wars The Rise of Skywalker movie poster
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker movie poster

Brilliant in every way, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is everything it was supposed to be. And as a true Native Nerd, I left the theater a truly happy camper. There were incredible action scenes, a plethora of amazing and diverse worlds and an incredible summation of the storyline involving the Sith, the Federation, the Resistance and Jedi.

Inasmuch as there were things to wrap up in the Star Wars saga, there were also extremes of emotion and incredible and shocking revelations that I simply was not expecting.

There were a few moments that were a bit over the top and I remember thinking, ‘Hey Star Wars, your Disney underoos are showing,’ when Oscar Isaac, playing the part of Poe Dameron addresses the crowd of resistance fighters with a sort of “C’mon guys, if we all work to come together as a team, we can beat the bad guys,” which made me roll my eyes.

He did the same exact thing in the last movie. So in Disney formulaic fashion, they were consistent in delivering a cornball message.

But I loved the story unfolding between Rey and Kylo Ren, who battle so fiercely on the opposing sides of the Force, and to see Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia (though she is now a General) was a wonderful thing.

I was disappointed regarding some of the storyline involving Rey and Finn, and I wish I had seen a bit more development.

There was so much nostalgia, and so much new story, it was a perfect blend of the Star Wars I grew up with as a kid, but still look forward to as an adult.

This was the best Star Wars in decades.

Togo

8.9 out of 10

MY QUICK QUOTE:
“Willem Dafoe and his Husky Togo’s life-or-death journey is a mesmerizing nail-biter. Additional roles by Zahn McClarnon and Michael Greyeyes add depth to the story, but it’s still a non-Native guy’s story in Native Alaska.”

SYNOPSIS:
“Togo” is the untold true story set in the winter of 1925 of champion dogsled trainer Leonhard Seppala and his lead sled dog, Togo. Together, they embark on an exhilarating and uplifting adventure across the treacherous terrain of the Alaskan tundra to help transport an antitoxin serum to a small town, and it is a journey that will test his strength, courage, and determination.

Togo movie poster
Togo movie poster

I appreciated Willem Dafoe as Leonhard Seppala, a Norwegian dog breeder and sled dog racer who participated in the “1925 serum run to Nome” in which a diphtheria outbreak caused several deaths in the small town.

The story is a wonderful one. A story about man and dog against nature and the impending Alaska winter storm that could easily prove deadly to the unwary. It was great to see native actors playing Native roles, Zahn McClarnon as Tulimak, Nive Nielsen as Atiqtalik and Michael Greyeyes as Amituk, all of whom played as friends to Seppala, the voices of respite in the harsh winter storm, a place to rest and get words of warning before the brave Seppala and Togo head back out into the storm.

The film was well done, the filming of Native Alaska was beautiful, but I wish this had been more of a Native Alaskan story.

As a Native man, I run a great risk here making such a statement. Because I am extremely appreciative to see Michael, Zahn, and Nive playing Native roles, so I don’t want to sound unappreciative. Also, Dafoe does an incredible job as Seppala, and the dog Togo is completely precious in the movie.

As much as I appreciate the movie and the anxiety-ridden moments of “I hope they make it!” I also wish for more, but also feel appreciative.

The answer doesn’t necessarily lie with Disney, but more so with Native filmmakers, writers, and more working to tell their own stories. This was a story based on truth, so I appreciate the realness of it, but I also feel myself wanting more of a story about Native Alaskans when telling a story about Native Alaska.

All said, a beautiful movie that I sincerely enjoyed. I recommend it highly. 

Native Nerd Phone

Follow the #NativeNerd, Vincent Schilling, associate editor for Indian Country Today and a proud movie reviewer.

Have a film, product or another review request? Email me at vschilling@indiancountrytoday.com or reach out to me on social media, Twitter at @VinceSchilling and Instagram at @VinceSchilling.

Also, follow my Indian Country Today #NativeNerd account on Twitter at @ICTNativeNerd

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