If there’s one topic aside from politics that will for sure divide the nation, it’s the 2019 live-action remake of Cats, which is now in theaters. The second the first Cats trailer dropped four months ago, the internet exploded. People tweeted out of confusion, some claiming the very existence of a new Cats movie was not only deeply upsetting, but life-ruining. Others were aghast by its very high-profile casting. Celebs like Taylor Swift, Idris Elba, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, and Jennifer Hudson star in this nightmarish movie about cats in skin-tight onesies — how did that even happen? Who tricked them? But! Not all of us feel this way. In fact, Cats is one of the most popular musicals to ever exist — it’s amassed over $3 billion since its debut in 1981.
Love it or hate it, Cats is finally here. If you never watched the original, you’re probably even more perplexed about the premise. People dressed as cats? But the people cats are CGI and small like actual cats? Why are they singing? Why are they called Jellicle cats? What even is a Jellicle cat? Let us break it down for you.
What Does Jellicle Mean?
The idea of a “Jellicle” comes from T.S. Eliot’s book of poetry called Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (published in 1939) and no you most likely didn’t read it in college. Eliot wrote a poem called “The Song of Jellicles,” and it goes like this (but many more lines and several more stanzas):
“Jellicle Cats are black and white / Jellicle Cats are rather small / Jellicle Cats are merry and bright / And pleasant to hear when they caterwaul.”
The poem ends with a Jellicle Moon and Jellicle Ball that the Jellicle Cats must attend every year, which is basically what the musical (originally written and composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber), is about. An old, dignified cat called Old Deuteronomy (played by Dench) has to select one cat who gets to be reborn on Heaviside Layer (which is kind of like cat heaven), and all the cats are vying for a spot in Heaviside Layer. The entire musical leads up the cats preparing for the Jellicle Ball so that Old Deuteronomy can make the Jellicle choice. Most of the cat characters are derived from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats or other Eliot poems.
Fun fact: Eliot was allegedly inspired by his toddler niece, who couldn’t pronounce “dear little,” and would instead say “jellicle.” Which led to the birth of the word “Jellicle.”
What's The Difference Between A Regular Cat & A Jellicle Cat?
So, yeah. Good question. A Jellicle Cat is basically a regular house cat, but more magical and more... musical. A Jellicle Cat is aware of the Jellicle Ball and knows to attend so that they can be chosen to go to Heaviside Layer.
They’re not a subspecies of cats, or cats with human DNA or anything. They’re truly just cats who sing.
Who Are The Jellicle Cats?
The new Cats movie doesn’t change much in terms of names and characterization. Swift plays a cat named Bombalurina who’s a flirt, and gets pretty chummy with Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo). Elba plays a bad guy cat named Macavity, who kidnaps Old Deuteronomy. Hudson portrays Grizabella, an old scruffy cat (who, spoiler, gets chosen to go to cat heaven).
Anyway, the point is that these Jellicle cat names were clearly designed for a two-year-old, thus making the whole concept of Cats even odder (or more delightful, depending on your POV) than you may have imagined.