Everything We Know About the 'Cats' Movie

cats, idris elba
Just Idris Elba as a cat | YouTube
Just Idris Elba as a cat | YouTube

December 20 will be a major day at the movies. Sure, that's the day that Star Wars: Episode IX is coming out. But there will be another title clawing for its share of the box office -- a title that's purrfectly poised to appeal to a whole range of people: Musical theater nerds, feline aficionados, Swifties. It's Cats. But what's Cats? Honestly, a more complicated question than you might think. Get a bowl of warm milk, a puff of catnip, and settle in as we tell you everything you need to know.

What is Cats?

Cats is a mindset. Cats is a plane of existence. Cats is a musical written by Andrew Lloyd Webber based on T.S. Eliot poems that opened in London in 1981, became the fourth longest running show on Broadway, and captured the heart of millions while baffling most. It originally ran in New York at the Winter Garden Theatre from 1982 to 2000 and was revived in 2016. It's also going to be a movie out this December.  

What is Cats about?

The eternal question. What is Cats about? Tony Kushner offers the simplest explanation in his masterpiece Angels in America: "Cats! It's about cats! Singing cats! You'll love it!" That's accurate! It is about cats.

OK, but seriously, is there a plot?

Hm. That's tricky. Sort of? Cats introduces its audiences to a bunch of "Jellicle cats" living in a trash yard who have funny names like Mungojerrie and Shimbleshanks. Most of the musical consists of the kitties telling the audience tall tales their fellow felines by way of catchy songs. So, for instance, you learn that "The Rum Tum Tugger is a curious cat" and "Oh! Well I never was there ever a cat so clever as magical mister Mistoffelees." These cool cats are all at a "Jellicle Ball" presided over by elder statescat Old Deuteronomy where one will ascend to the Heaviside Layer on a giant tire. What's the Heaviside Layer? Cat heaven I guess? It's honestly unclear. What we do know is there's one cat, named Grizabella the Glamour Cat, who wants this opportunity but the other cats think she's too old or something. Still, she sings "Memory," the one song everyone knows, and all the others deem her worth because, you know, she's been through a lot.

This sums it up, tbh.


I think you mean meow.

OK, you got me. Has there ever been a movie before? 

Actually, yes. There was a direct-to-video filmed version of the stage production released in 1998. 

But this is not that. 

Did that movie have Taylor Swift or employ "digital fur technology"??? No. This is not that. 

So who is directing this big fancy new movie?

That would be Tom Hooper, the British director who won an Oscar for The King's Speech, but his bigger qualification would be his work helming the adaptation of Les Misérables, another bombastic show from the British invasion era of Broadway.

What are you talking about?

In the 1980s, Broadway was overrun with epic-in-scale shows that originated in London with producer Cameron Mackintosh.

Who is going to be in whiskers? A.K.A. Who's in the cast?

Honestly, one of my favorite party tricks is to just pull up IMDb and list the cast of Cats, just because the collection of names is so deliciously random, a delightful mix of acting legends, pop stars, and comedians. First things first, you want to know who's going to be singing "Memory?" That would be Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson, playing Grizabella.

Moving on: Let's start with the acting royalty. Though Old Deuteronomy is typically played by a man, here the stately elder cat will be portrayed by none other than Judi Dench. Fellow Brit Ian McKellan is Gus the Theatre Cat, who, like McKellan, has had a historic career on the stage. Jason Derulo is Rum Tum Tugger, a cat who can only be described as the "sexy one." Taylor Swift -- famous as a pop star and a cat lady -- will be Bombalurina, who sings about Macavity the Mystery Cat, a renowned criminal to be embodied by Idris Elba. Rebel Wilson and James Corden are Jennyanydots and Bustopher Jones, respectively, while former New York City Ballet dancer Robert Fairchild is Munkustrap, the cat who explains what the hell is going on. 

Do any of these people have a history with Cats

Funny you ask: Dench was actually going to play Grizabella in the first London production, but an injury prevented her from participating. She once told an audience: "I went to see it and thought, 'I'm glad I wasn't in that.'" That's an incredibly shady choice of words, but it seems she's had a change of heart. 

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Whatever, nerd. Are there going to be cats onscreen? People dressed as cats? What's the deal here?

Before we had any idea what the hell was going to happen, cast member Idris Elba told The Hollywood Reporter there would be no leotards, but "that the way that they're visually making the cats into humans is going to be not seen before." Thanks to Universal's presentation at CinemaCon, we now have some more details. And they. are. wild.

Let's break this down. The cats in Cats will be portrayed the size of real cats. That means that the scenery is very big, as evidenced by the deranged "A Look Inside" featurette released the Wednesday prior to the first trailer drop. See, for example, Rebel Wilson approaching a big-ass door! Because cats are small and doors are large! But the cats themselves don't look like real cats, instead they are haunting human-cat hybrids created via motion capture and "digital fur" technology. "These are people but they're cats and it's kind of blowing my mind," James Corden said in a promo played at the event

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Okay, so just show me what these goddamn nightmare creatures look like...

Ask and you shall receive. The first trailer was released on July 18, 2019 at approximately 5 p.m. EST and the world was forever changed. It was in this moment we learned that in the universe of Universal's Cats, the cats have human faces and fingers. Some of them wear shoes. The female cats have boobs. It all combines to result in the most insane imagery I've ever seen in my whole life. Truly, I have not and will never recover. Besides that, it looks pretty much like the movie, except the ballerina cat Victoria, played here by dancer Francesca Hayward, seems to get more of an actual plot. I don't know. I'm not feeling well.

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Is there anymore footage? 

I'm glad you asked. The second trailer includes Jason Derulo screaming, "Milk." Is that good enough for you? 

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Is all the music from the Broadway show? 

Hahaha. No. Taylor Swift and Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote a new song for the movie -- with the implicit aim of getting an original song Oscar nomination. (It did score Cats its only Golden Globe nod, so that's something at least.) The tune is called "Beautiful Ghosts" and you can hear Swift herself sing it above. Does she use a British accent for certain words? Hell yes. On screen, it's performed by Francesca Hayward, who plays Victoria, our guide through the world of feline existential crisis. 

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I'm confused! And tired!

I really do not know what to tell you. That's sort of the effect Cats has on people. It's also sort of magical and hilarious thanks to Webber's twinkling score and the impressive choreography. Again, it's not clear what this movie will look like, but if it captures any of the bizarre, prowling movement, Hooper will be on the right track. 

Fine. When can I see it? 

December 20, 2019. Meow. 

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.