Jellicle Cattes

Kat Eschner's newsletter about animal-human relationships, Vol. 4 Iss. 6

This week’s issue of CREATURE FEATURE is brought to you by the uncanny valley.

One time I wrote an entire story off a dumb one-liner I remembered from being a kid. In 2017’s How the Nauga and its fictional friends helped make synthetic fabric cuddly, I explored how making synthetic naugahyde seem more animalistic by inventing a fictional creature whose skin it was enabled its makers to popularize the new material. Of course, some wiseacre had to come along and yell “Save the Naugas!” Today, the makers of Naugahyde (and Nauga dolls, which you can still purchase) are trying to capitalize on the vegan leather trend.

Naugas, like the cats from CATS (2019) are aping other beings. But in the case of CATS (2019) it’s unsettling, while in the case of the Naugas it’s kind of dumb and cute. To figure this out I went back to the translated text of the 1970 Japanese essay that gave us the idea of the uncanny valley. It’s a weird read but not as weird as I expected, maybe because its premise has been around longer than I have.

My basic answer: Naugas don’t move, and beings that look like other beings need to move in order to be truly creepy; Naugas don’t look like any specific animal, so there’s nothing to weigh them against; a musical about singing cats picking which one of them is going to die, based on the work of the same person who wrote The Wasteland, was and is always going to be creepy.

I saw CATS (2019) on Friday and it was dissappointingly fine. Sure the cats in their (admittedly, CGI) catsuits were weird, and the plot is bizarre, and the singing and dancing is fey at best. But I don’t know what all the fuss is about, because the same things would hold true of any stage production. The plot (such as it was) held together and some of the dancing and singing was pretty good. The thing that would have been terrible is if the cats, out of some strange notion of verisimilitude, had buttholes. Nobody needs to see that.

Image: A crowd of actors in full and uncanny CGI cat getup stand in cobbled streets. (Credit: Universal Pictures, still from trailer)

Extra credit

Short-ish or newsy things I read this week:

Longer or more involved things:

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All images in CREATURE FEATURE are used under Creative Commons licensing. Efforts have been made to ensure that photographs of living animals or natural scenes have been taken ethically, in responsible pet ownership conditions, at AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums or under safe, non-damaging conditions in the wild. If you see an issue with any image we share, please notify me.