The time has come. It was inevitable that we would have to confront one of the most pressing issues in the modern pop-culture consciousness, and we simply cannot put it off any longer. That’s right: Universal dropped the trailer for Cats this week. It’s real and it is… well, we’re not entirely sure we have the words for it.
For those of you who don’t know, Cats is a 1981 musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber (the composer behind massively popular musicals like Phantom of the Opera, Starlight Express, and Evita). The lyrics are taken from Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, a collection of children's poems written by T.S. Eliot. The story, such as it is, focuses on a tribe of cats known as the Jellicles, who gather together one night to decide which of them shall ascend to the Heaviside Layer (the feline version of Heaven) and be reborn into a new and better life.
The movie, directed by Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech and Les Misérables), features perhaps one of the strangest and most eclectic casts put together for such a project. It’s as if a bunch of names were attached to a board and the director just went with where his darts landed. But hey, we finally get to see Idris Elba, Taylor Swift, Judi Dench, Jason Derulo, James Corden, Rebel Wilson, Ian McKellen, and several major stars of the American ballet scene together at last!
Before the trailer dropped, Universal released a brief behind-the-scenes video showing the actors rehearsing on those giant sets (built to scale so our humanoids would appear feline-sized). Much was made in this clip about the so-called “digital fur technology” being used to ensure our stars would look suitably cat-esque for this show about cats that is also called Cats.
Audiences were always going to be curious about this movie. How could they not be? It’s based on one of the strangest major musicals of the ‘80s and would require transforming humans into ballet-dancing musical cats. We had no idea what it would look like, but nothing could prepare us for the trailer itself.
So... where to begin?
First, it’s worth noting how much of this trailer centers on the character of Victoria, played by celebrated ballet dancer Francesca Hayward in her cinematic debut. In the musical, Victoria isn’t a major character but more an excuse for the show to demonstrate its extremely difficult choreography — yet the trailer makes her seem like the protagonist. This could be Hooper and the company’s way of trying to wrangle this notorious strange and mostly plotless story into something resembling a traditional Hollywood story arc.
If you have no idea what actually happens in Cats, you’re probably not going to be able to figure it out by solely watching the trailer. The true purpose of it is to entice audiences through its star power, the sheer oddity of the special effects, and that instantly recognizable music. Even people who haven’t seen Cats are aware of its songs, particularly "Memory," which gets belted out in this trailer by Jennifer Hudson. That song is the musical and they damn well aren’t about to let you forget it. From an advertising point-of-view, it’s obviously smart, but it’s also the emotional climax of the entire story, so it’s weird to give it away so flagrantly.
But come on, you already know if you’re going to see this movie or not. You’re either a big fan of the musical who’s already pre-booked the tickets, a strident opponent of the entire medium who wants nothing to do with this, or one of the morbidly curious souls who just has to know what this movie is like. (Like us, probably part of the third camp.)
We can’t avoid talking about how, to put it bluntly, bonkers this movie looks in that trailer. The actors somehow look more naked with cat fur than they would if they were dancing around in the raw. In terms of proportions, the body shapes and their size comparisons to their environment are mixed at best. Someone decided it would be a smart decision to give these cats human hands, but that’s still less unnerving than the fact that the lady cats have breasts. No nipples, of course, but there are definitely mounds on show, and in one scene with Rebel Wilson tap dancing, you see jiggle physics in motion.
Some actors look more comfortable under all that digital fur technology than others, but it’s hard to overlook the sheer uncanny valley strangeness of seeing Taylor Swift’s very recognizable face surrounded by fur with cat ears on top and a hairy body with pretty high heels on her feet. There are so many questions to be asked here: Why do some cats wear clothes and accessories while others don’t? Did they buy them, and if so what is the cat formalwear economy like? Where did cat Taylor Swift get the bejeweled catnip shaker from, and is catnip in this world an illegal drug? Is Taylor Swift a feline drug pusher? If some of this world is cat-sized, and other parts are human-sized, who really runs this Earth? The buildings in this London have names like the Grand Feral Hotel and the Royal Claws Hotel, so do the cats run this city or is this alternate version of Britain's capital just a bit too much into cats? Are we all going to have to deal with a typhoon of conflicting emotions when it comes to the problem of sexy cat-man Idris Elba? Okay, the answer to that last question is simple, but for the others, we have no idea.
But here’s the thing about Cats that makes this trailer so fascinating and kind of appealing: it’s 100% wholeheartedly earnest. They are not joking around with their complete commitment to this utterly bonkers concept. This is a story that wants you to get swept up in this fantastical combination of reality and the fundamentally unreal. It wants you to believe in these cat people and their emotional struggles. They hope you are as swept up in that iconic music and elaborate choreography as audiences have been for 38 years. This isn’t a concept you can execute with a wink and a nod or pretend you’re in on the joke. Either you do Cats or you don’t do Cats!
So, can this movie be a success? It’s got a cushy release date of December 20, but its competition is a little film called Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. This is a musical that's made billions of dollars worldwide and endured as a cultural brand for close to four decades, so it's not out of the realm of possibility for it to be a hit, especially during a time where musicals like The Greatest Showman and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again are doing great. This show is one of the most popular and longest-running musicals for a reason. It’s a Cats world and we just live in it.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.