'Cats' Movie Explained: Breaking Down the Cast, the Plot and Taylor Swift's 'Beautiful Ghosts'

Universal Pictures

To explain Cats may be doing a disservice to the magical wonderment that is humans performing as a group of felines competing to be the chosen one. Honestly, the less said the better. “It’s a big joyous romp,” James Corden tells ET. “It really should not be taken too seriously.” But now that director Tom Hooper has adapted Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit musical into a movie, ET is breaking down everything you need to know about the Broadway show, the cast of cats and what the whole thing is about.  

Based on a collection of T. S. Eliot poems set to music by Webber, the show first opened in London’s West End in 1981 before transferring to Broadway in 1982. The production, which famously featured performers crawling through the aisles and interacting with audiences, went on to become an unprecedented success, running for 21 years in London and 18 years in New York City and winning seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

In its nearly 40-year history, Cats has become something of a cultural phenomenon, influencing countless musicals that followed while spilling over into other mediums of pop culture. “We were literally the talk of the town,” theater actor and dancer Kenneth Ard, who played various characters in the original Broadway production, told Vulture. “Of course, after a couple years it became this joke. But it was the most spectacular thing of its time.”

Notably, Cats has been parodied on TV multiple times by The Simpsons and most recently on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which exposed the “real” reason the cats crawled through theater aisles. Most famously, the musical was a subplot in the 1993 film Six Degrees of Separation starring Will Smith and Ian McKellen, whose character wants to be an extra in Cats once he learns that it’s being turned into a movie. Funnily enough, in an earlier scene, it’s suggested that a film adaptation can’t be done until Smith’s character says they've found a way... 

Now, Hooper -- a lifelong fan of the musical -- has used “digital fur technology” to transform an ensemble cast of stars, from McKellen and Judi Dench to Jason Derulo and Taylor Swift, into singing, dancing felines for a two-hour movie adaptation that attempts to capture the phenomenon on screen. 

The Story

Cats is about a group of back-alley felines coming together over the course of one night during the 1980s in hopes of being granted a new life. Unlike most musicals, the show does not feature a traditional narrative structure. Instead, each song (with lyrics pulled from Eliot’s verses) or dance number introduces a different contender before moving on to the next. The film, however, creates a narrative that strings together all the performances. 

Set in 1930s London, a kitten named Victoria (Francesca Hayward) is discarded in an alley by her owner, where she encounters a group of strays, including Munkustrap (Robbie Fairchild) and the magical Mr. Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson), who teach her the ways of the Jellicle cats. The three felines then set off on a journey to the annual Jellicle Ball, where Old Deuteronomy, their elderly leader played by Dench, will determine who will ascend to the Heaviside Layer.

Along the way, they encounter the various contenders -- the seemingly lazy Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson), cat about town Bustopher Jones (James Corden), the attention-commanding Rum Tum Tugger (Derulo), an aging theater cat named Gus (McKellen), the tap-dancing Skimbleshanks (Steven McRae) and the mischievous Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer (Danny Collins and Naoimh Morgan) -- as well as the villainous Macavity (Idris Elba), who kidnaps his competition in an effort to be the only one left. Helping him with his plan are the sultry, catnip-loving Bombalurina (Swift) and Growltiger (Ray Winstone), the captain of a tugboat where Macavity’s captives are held.  

After Macavity’s plan is foiled by a bit of magic from Mistoffelees, the group’s previously shunned Grizabella the Glamour Cat (Jennifer Hudson) emerges as the rightful feline who will be reborn while Victoria finds her place among Jellicle cats.  

At the center of this fantastical odyssey, Hooper says, is a timely story about the importance of inclusion, community, forgiveness and redemption. More specifically, at the film’s premiere, he said Cats is about the “perils of tribalism and the power of kindness.”

The Music

The most popular song to come out of the musical is “Memory” sung by Grizabella, originally performed by Elaine Paige in London and Betty Buckley in New York. In the film, Hudson puts her stamp on the show-stopping number, which she performs in full just before her cat is formally chosen by Deuteronomy to ascend into Heaviside. While the song is now a standard covered by many artists, Hudson never had performed it before. “In the film was my first time,” she tells ET.

The film adds one new song, “Beautiful Ghosts,” co-written by Webber and Swift and performed by Victoria. “This is a character that is a lead character in the film, and in the original Broadway production, she doesn't have a song,” Swift says, explaining the inspiration for the original number (and how her cats also inspired Wilson’s performance). “In the production, she’s just a ballerina -- we don’t ever hear from her. So, it was amazing to get to be the lyricist who figured out what she was going to say when she spoke.”

Paired with “Memory,” the song adds to the emotional climax of the film, when Grizabella finally finds acceptance among the Jellicles thanks to Victoria. “I feel like the movie doesn’t make sense without that song,” says Swift, who performs a version of the song, which was nominated for a Golden Globe, over the end credits of the film.  

The Digital Fur Technology

In order to transform the musical for the screen, Hooper wanted to amplify the size and scale of the production so it didn’t feel like it was still on a stage. To achieve that, he built sprawling sets with oversized props to make the actors appear cat-sized in comparison. 

And instead of using traditional hair, makeup and costuming -- on stage, actors wore skin-tight suits covered in furs with wigs made from yak hair and intricate face makeup -- Hooper used what he called “digital fur technology” to transform the cast. “The stage show, Cats, was not about a lot of people being convincing as cats, but it was about human beings discovering their cat-like nature,” McKellen says. “And it was hugely successful.”

“When it was now being done in film, the temptation I think must have been to turn those actors into cats, like Lion King, and make them look like real cats, but they're not real cats,” he adds. “They're people playing cats, and that is the notion of the film, and it's been done very wittingly, I think, and particularly the dancers.”

Universal Pictures

So when filming, all the actors donned CGI lycra suits that were later replaced with all the feline essentials, from fur to whiskers to animated ears and tails. “The Cats fans will be happy to know that we still wore unitards,” Fairchild says. “They were just full of wires and cords and batteries.”

Despite essentially being covered from head to toe, Derulo jokes that “it was like being naked, pretty much. But not in a good way.” Though, Dench says that eventually “you forget that you’re looking at somebody in a green leotard with lots of spots on their faces.”

It’s “a kind of level of technology which I don’t think has ever been used before,” Corden said in the first teaser for the movie. “These are people, but they’re cats and this is kind of blowing my mind. There is nothing else like it.”


Cats in now in theaters.


Watch Taylor Swift and 'Cats' Cast Perform 'Memory' With Trash Cans, Brooms and Buckets (Exclusive)

'Cats': Taylor Swift on the Surprising Way Her Own Cats Influenced the Film! (Exclusive)

Rebel Wilson Says She Lost 8 Pounds During 4 Days of Filming on 'Cats'