The first trailer for the Cats theatrical adaptation landed on the Internet last week, and fans were... confused. The real question, though, is what would the poet who inspired the musical think of it? T.S. Eliot would probably enjoy the Cats trailer, in spite of what we all think, says his estate.
First things first: Yes, Cats was inspired by a book of poetry. In 1981, Andrew Lloyd Webber transformed T.S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, from an obscure, humorous footnote in the poet's bibliography into a worldwide phenomenon, but he wasn't the first person to try to bring Cats to a wider audience. In an interview with Jane Pauley, conducted shortly after Cats premiered in London's West End, Lloyd Webber said that Walt Disney himself had once attempted to secure the rights to Old Possum's Book.
"Many years ago... Walt Disney wanted to make them as a film. I think 1947, 1948, but [Eliot] didn’t want to do it then because he felt [the Cats] would become too pretty," Lloyd Webber said. "I remember when I first went to see [Eliot's widow, Valerie Eliot]. I was terrified because I thought no way would she let me have the rights and she said to me all the things that I wanted to hear about how he really thought they were street cats." According to The Times, it was Lloyd Webber's suggestion to make the Cats into something like U.K. dance troupe known as Hot Gossip — known for their "risqué" moves, which you can watch here — that sealed the deal for Valerie Eliot.
The performers' costuming has been through several iterations over the years, but it has always kept its signature, sexy-in-spandex look. In the trailer for the first theatrical Cats release, however, the material manes of the dancing felines have been replaced by short, CGI fur. The decision to remove much of the face paint — which has transformed countless dancers into Cats over the years — and replace it with weirdly Photoshopped versions of the actors' faces has also drawn ire, both from fans creeped out by the oddly human faces on cat bodies, and from those who say that the process whitewashed Francesca Hayward, the Kenyan-British dancer cast as the film's Victoria.
In spite of fans' objections to the Cats film's changes, Eliot estate administrator Clare Reihill told The Guardian on Tuesday that the poet "might have enjoyed the rich strangeness of the blurring of the boundary between human and cat in the trailer." Noting that Eliot's Cats "inhabit a world that is slightly unfixed," Reihill observed that the poet "was also a great fan of Jacques Tati’s movies, with their surreal urban ballets," which may have led him to appreciate the uncanny valley into which the Cats trailer descends.
Although often derided by musical fans who find it to be too fluffy, for lack of a better term, Cats is an institution. The new film might have pleased T.S. Eliot, but Cats fans may be a little harder to convince. For those for whom the pill of CGI Cats is still too bitter to swallow, we'll always have the 1998 PBS special.
Cats lands on all fours in a theater near you on Dec. 20.