The Wild Plot Of ‘Cats’ Explained | Pop Culture Decoded

This is 2019’s “Cats,” a modern interpretation
of the classic musical that uses something called
“digital fur technology.” But stranger than the new
high-tech costumes is the story: A group of what are called “Jellicle” cats are taking part in an
“American Idol”-style singing competition. The prize? Dying and being sent to heaven, after which they will be reborn. Confused? Here’s everything you need to know to make sense of “Cats.” While the musical “Cats”
premiered in 1981, the story actually goes back even further, to a 1939 book of poems by T.S. Eliot called “Old Possum’s
Book of Practical Cats.” “Old Possum” was a nickname given to Eliot by fellow poet and friend Ezra Pound. Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber
later adapted the poems into songs and, eventually, the musical. Fun fact: The original
working title of the show was called “Practical Cats.” Each poem introduced a
different cat’s character. There are 33 in the show. There’s Jennyanydots,
played by Rebel Wilson, a lazy cat who “sits and sits and sits” in the poem “The Old Gumbie Cat” but who is actually very busy and active at night; Bombalurina, played by Taylor Swift, one of the many characters mentioned in the first poem of the book, “The Naming of Cats,” who is very flirty with the others; and Rum Tum Tugger,
played by Jason Derulo, described in a poem of the same name as a “Curious Cat” who is very self-centered. But some of the characters
come from other Eliot poems, and others were created
specifically for the Broadway show. While there is a poem about Jellicle cats, the term dates back even further. But what exactly are Jellicle cats? Eliot first wrote the phrase
in an unpublished poem to his godson for his birthday. “To all Pollicle dogs and Jellicle Cats.” The second mention of Jellicles is in an Eliot poem called
“Five Finger Exercises” from 1933. Here we even get a hint of
the death aspect of the plot with the reference to dust. But more on that later. Pollicle is a nonsense word that’s a combination of “poor little,” and Jellicle is a mix of
the words “dear little.” What exactly a Jellicle cat is is further explained in the
poem “The Song of the Jellicles” from the 1939 book. Let’s break that down. The poem describes them
as “black and white” and “rather small.” As we can see from the new trailer, the cats are indeed small. Smaller, in fact, than
what a real cat would be, at least based on their proportions. The stage musical was set in a junkyard with oversized props, so the actors appeared
small by comparison. The color is a different story. As you can see from any
stage or film production, the cats are all sorts of
different colors and breeds. There’s at least one black
and white cat, however, Mr. Mistoffelees, who’s a tuxedo cat that knows how to do magic tricks, according to another Eliot poem. Jellicle cats are “pleasant
to hear when they caterwaul.” They also “know how to
dance a gavotte and a jig” and have “terpsichorean powers.” Terpsichore is a Greek
muse of song and dance, so all of this backs up the
fact that these Jellicle cats are great performers and
are perfect for a musical. In the musical, each
cat has their own song and a story to tell, which is why the show can
feel slightly disjointed. Their stories don’t connect
or necessarily make any sense, but they’re great to listen to. So, now that we’ve established that they can both sing and dance, why exactly are they
singing and dancing at all? The poem mentions that they’re waiting for the “Jellicle Moon,”
an annual occurrence when the moon is very bright and the “Jellicle Ball” takes place. This is a big event for Jellicle cats. It’s when they all come
together to perform for the oldest cat and leader
of the tribe, Old Deuteronomy. In the musical, Deuteronomy is a male cat, but the new film has made
the character female, played by Judi Dench. Deuteronomy has lived
“many lives in succession.” Cats have nine lives, remember. Deuteronomy also has had
many wives, as many as 99, according to the poem. This character, for some reason, also wears a separate, shaggy
coat over their own fur. In the musical, Deuteronomy
is the judge and jury, listening to each cat sing their song and deciding which of them
will be allowed to die and ascend into the Jellicle cat heaven, a place called the “Heaviside Layer.” In the “Cats” universe, this
is their version of heaven. In the real world, the
Heaviside layer is actually a part of the Earth’s ionosphere. In an unpublished piece, Eliot mentions that cats go to the Heaviside
Layer when they die. The singing competition is essentially them making their case to be sacrificed, which may seem a little grim. But we shouldn’t think of this as death and then nothingness. The chosen cat is then reborn and becomes a new, much better cat. Because, once again, cats have nine lives. Spoiler alert for the ending: In the musical, the cat
that’s chosen to die is Grizabella. Grizabella is the cat that disgusts all of the other cats in the show. She’s described as
being mangy and unkempt. She left the Jellicle tribe years ago but now wants them to let her back in. This character, while one of
the more important to the plot, did not actually come from
the 1939 book of poems. She was inspired by another
of Eliot’s unpublished works called “Grizabella the Glamour Cat”. She also sings one of
the most memorable songs from the musical, aptly titled “Memory.” ♪ Memory ♪ In the 2019 film, Jennifer
Hudson plays Grizabella. The popular song’s lyrics
were inspired by another poem in Eliot’s book called
“Rhapsody on a Windy Night.” While Grizabella could be
considered the protagonist, there’s also a villain in the show, a cat by the name of Macavity. Macavity is a literary
allusion to the character Professor Moriarty, the
villain in “Sherlock Holmes,” of which Eliot was a huge fan. In the poem “Macavity: The Mystery Cat,” Eliot describes the character
as a “master criminal” and “the Napoleon of Crime.” He’s also “not there,”
as the poem repeats, which supports the
“cavity” part of his name. His role in the plot is
to scare the other cats, and at one point he even
kidnaps Old Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy is returned later thanks to the magic of Mr. Mistoffelees. In the movie, Macavity
is played by Idris Elba, who, for some reason, also
wears a cat-sized Fedora. [laughing] There have been multiple stage productions and one 1998 film prior to the 2019 movie. The new version is directed by Tom Hooper and has a cast full of A-listers, as we’ve mentioned before, including Ian McKellen and James Corden. And unlike previous adaptations, the 2019 film doesn’t use
any makeup for the cast. Everything is created
using a new CGI technique they describe as “digital fur technology.” This new style, while mocked online, seems to fit right in with a story that has been strange
from the very beginning.

49 thoughts on “The Wild Plot Of ‘Cats’ Explained | Pop Culture Decoded

  1. Meh… They should have made actual CGI cats rather than superimposing feline features on the human figure. Just a little unsettling.

  2. The stage musical is actually really fantastic, especially if you care a lot about music, choreography and stage- or costume design. When i saw it live i absolutely adored it and i feel like many people say it‘s bad just because that’s a common opinion. But let’s ne real, Cats needs the dimension of live theatre where things don’t have to be 100% realistically looking to amaze you. The CGI on the other hand looks (to quote gordon ramsey) Ghastly. It was such a bad idea to mix between human and animal looks.

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