Just in time for the holidays, on December 20, one of the greatest Broadway musicals of all time will hit the big screen. CATS, based on the award-winning stage production by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, features an all-star cast, including Taylor Swift, Idris Elba, James Corden and Jennifer Hudson, alongside newcomer Francesca Hayward.
This phenomenal ensemble will bring the show's fantastical felines to life in an epic film about… wait, what is it about, exactly? If you’re unfamiliar with this classic musical, we’ve put together a handy guide featuring everything you need to know about CATS.
To answer your first question, yes, the cats in CATS are the size of cats. They (mostly) walk upright like humans, and are clearly played by people with an overlay of digital fur. In the context of the story, however, they are meant to be the size of actual cats. The CATS trailer hopefully makes that part clear enough.
The plot of CATS is actually pretty simple. If you’re unfamiliar with the stage production, however, there might be some confusion when the trailer starts throwing around names like “Jellicles” and “Rum-tum-tugger.”
CATS centers on the feline tribe known as the Jellicles. One night every year, the Jellicles must choose one cat to ascend to the “Heaviside Layer,” which is basically like cat heaven. After venturing to the Heaviside Layer, this chosen cat will return and have a new life (cats do have nine lives, after all).
CATS is actually loosely based on OLD POSSUM’S BOOK OF PRACTICAL CATS, a collection of whimsical poems for children, written by T.S. Eliot. Andrew Lloyd Webber set Eliot’s verses to song without adding much in the way of plot or structure. Since CATS is based on these poems, it doesn’t have what you might call a traditional narrative structure. Even so, once you understand what the story is about, it’s pretty straightforward.
It's not an exaggeration when we say CATS features an all-star cast. The film unites highly-skilled performers from the worlds of acting, ballet, music, and dance to create one mind-blowing experience. Acclaimed actors Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Idris Elba, Jennifer Hudson, and Rebel Wilson are joined by pop icon Taylor Swift and hip-hop star Jason Derulo. And late night TV host James Corden and professional ballet dancer Francesca Hayward play roles, with Hayward making her acting debut in the crucial role of Victoria, a shy cat who does not sing, but leads many incredible dance numbers.
The lead role in CATS is Grizabella, played by Jennifer Hudson of DREAMGIRLS fame. Hudson gets to sing the show-stopping musical number in CATS, as she performs the production’s most famous song, “Memory.”
As for the rest of the cats: Judi Dench plays Old Deuteronomy, a wise elderly cat who must decide which Jellicle cat is worthy of ascending to the Heaviside Layer. Jason Derulo is Rum Tum Tugger, a rebellious feline who must be the center of attention at all times. Taylor Swift plays the flirtatious and glamorous Bombalurina, while Rebel Wilson is Jennyanydots, a lazy cat who comes alive and gets down to business at night.
Idris Elba portrays the mischievous Macavity, a master criminal with supernatural powers. Ian McKellen plays Gus the Theatre Cat, an elderly cat who has become quite frail but is still highly respected among his feline peers. And ballet dancer Robert Fairchild plays Munkustrap, who serves as the main narrator of CATS.
Bringing one of Broadway’s most beloved musicals to the big screen while wrangling all this talent requires a highly-skilled director. That's where Tom Hooper comes in. He previously directed the Oscar-winning drama THE KING’S SPEECH. He also directed LES MISERABLES, another adaptation of an acclaimed Broadway production, so Hooper knows a thing or two about transforming an epic musical into an equally epic film.
Hooper, whose credits also include THE DANISH GIRL and HBO’s upcoming adaptation of "His Dark Materials," used groundbreaking effects to turn his human stars into fantastic felines. After the director filmed his actors’ performances with motion-capture technology, the effects team created a layer of digital fur and gave the actors moving ears, whiskers, and tails. This effect, which had never been done before, allowed Hooper to recreate the look and feel of the CATS stage show, in which the actors are heavily made-up to look like cats.
All images courtesy of Universal Pictures.