Idris Elba to Play the Villain in 'Cats'

This unpredictable musical adaptation keeps us on our toes with star-studded casting regardless of its inherently strange premise.

Idris Elba Thor Ragnarok
Marvel Studios

Putting Idris Elba’s name next to “Tom Hooper” and “Cats” feels about as inexplicable as news gets, but this is the real timeline we’re living in. As reported by Deadline, Elba is negotiating a villainous role in Hooper’s long-gestating adaptation of the immensely popular if also polarizing feline-centric musical. Should Elba board the production, he will join Ian McKellen (The Lord of the Rings), Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls), James Corden (Into the Woods), Taylor Swift (The Giver), Laurie Davidson (Will), and dancer Mette Towley; a cast that’s both star-studded and unusual.

Cats, a show with a whopping 19 principal characters including the sneaky master criminal named Macavity whom Elba may play, is about a tribe of felines called the Jellicles. On one night a year, when the group reunites to celebrate their unique identity, “the Jellicle choice” must ultimately be made in order to determine which of the cats will be “reborn into a new life” after ascending to the ever-elusive Heaviside Layer.

The above summary is vague and full of borderline indecipherable terms, but that kind of whimsy is exactly what Andrew Lloyd Webber‘s stage musical — which is based on T.S. Eliot‘s poetry collection “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” — is purely about.

Cats has been baffling the musical theater world since premiering more than 35 years ago. Everything from the very presence of humanoid cats singing non-stop (and breaking the fourth wall while doing it) to the thin but curiously bizarre storyline speaks to an extremely specific palate of enjoyment. Is Cats meant to be loved or reviled?

Personally, I remember seeing the musical as an eight-year-old and being absolutely captivated by the showiness and charisma that each cat onstage had to possess. Having grown up on a bunch of glossy Disney animated movies filled with a variety of talking non-human creatures, the suspension of disbelief wasn’t a problem for tiny me. If The Lion KingHamlet in the savanna — could strike a chord, singing cats are fair game.

That said, Cats is far from perfect. The utter simplicity of the musical doesn’t justify its runtime of more than two hours. Now, the musical is unabashedly tuned into its own fanciful vibe, comprising enthralling, energetic choreography that delivers high-impact entertainment. Yet, this trait would be admirable if the show had any kind of plot to begin with. Instead, there are no stakes or narrative tension in Cats. To me, the experience of watching it now feels like a bombardment of ostentatious elements that merely serve to distract.

Still, these conflicting impressions don’t deter virtually anyone else from keeping the production going all of these years. Cats sits as the fourth-longest-running show in Broadway history (having once been the longest-running one until 2006). It has been translated into more than 20 languages. Meanwhile, celebrity performers clamor to feature in Cats, too. Numerous stage revivals have seen the casting of pop stars like Nicole Scherzinger, Leona Lewis, and Delta Goodrem as the musical’s iconic female lead, Grizabella.

Thus, a film version of Cats isn’t totally implausible. Fun fact, it did become a direct-to-video movie in the late 1990s. Regardless, even today the show has cultural relevance in spite of its fervent detractors.

And honestly, there could actually be value in the source material’s extreme camp. Moviegoers seem to have fostered an acceptance for escapism in musicals of late. Hugh Jackman’s passion project The Greatest Showman may not have wowed critics, but the uncomplicated, feel-good movie impressed the world with its infectious, chart-topping soundtrack. The Greatest Showman had phenomenal staying power at the box office as well, grossing a total of $435 million worldwide. Meanwhile, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again was a definitive mid-year hit, grossing $392 million as of early October 2018 with its own wildly successful compilation of ABBA covers.

Whether this means Cats will translate well on the big screen relies heavily on the adaptation’s production team, which has warily been a mixed bag so far. I remain on the fence about whether Hooper is the right choice to direct the movie, given how he turned Les Misérables into a stale cinematic experience with hardly any sense of emotional palpability.

Granted, Hooper’s movies are more likely to succeed with a strong cast attached, but even that’s not necessarily assured. The King’s Speech and The Danish Girl (ill-advised as the latter is) are proficient enough overall. In contrast, Les Mis is wildly inconsistent performance-wise thanks to the likes of Russell Crowe and Sacha Baron Cohen, who deliver uninspired turns.

Amusingly, though — in the instance of Cats — the technical strength that Hooper could possibly have going for him is actually his controversial signature: an overindulgence in sudden and zany close-ups. This filmmaking technique is completely out of place and comical when randomly stitched into the solemn fabric of Les Mis. But Hooper’s weird camera angles may just work for a more extravagant and surreal movie like Cats or the fantasy genre in general.

As for Elba’s involvement, he may have plenty of experience in the world of music as a rapper and DJ, but Cats will mark his first studio musical. Nevertheless, we are used to and appreciative of his practice of genre experimentation by now. Despite being so iconic for his personification of grit and pain in The Wire and Luther, Elba showcases that he is perfectly suited for tentpole movie glory. Just look to the Thor arm of the Marvel Cinematic Universe for confirmation.

Moreover, Elba canceled the apocalypse in Pacific Rim the same year that he portrayed Nelson Mandela in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom; the latter garnered him a Golden Globe nomination. No one can say he’s not versatile. Villains are commonplace in his filmography, too — notably antagonistic cats like Shere Khan in The Jungle Book — and he regularly signs on to play them. Basically, alongside the hodge-podge Cats cast, Elba solidly adds considerable intrigue as he is consistent as a scene-stealer.

That doesn’t mean Hooper’s Cats adaptation isn’t still as unknowable as ever. There is no doubt that Elba could make another villain work, but Cats had better end up being more than a sum of its very odd parts. The film, which keeps bucking casting expectations, will probably remain a mystery until it opens on December 20, 2019.

Often chugging tea and thinking about horror movies. Curator of daily stuff and things here at Film School Rejects.