As a veterinarian, anatomist, and physiologist, Leslie Sprunger has taught small animal anatomy at Washington State University for nearly two decades. After the release of the trailer for the upcoming film musical Cats, based on the Broadway musical Cats, itself based on T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, WIRED spoke with Dr. Sprunger for a sense of what exactly was going on with… all of that.
If you haven’t watched the trailer yet, you can do so right here. It features an unlikely concoction of Jennifer Hudson, Taylor Swift, Dame Judy Dench, Jason Derulo, and familiar show tune weepers. As with the stage production, the movie’s not trying particularly hard for feline fidelity. But the ways in which it actually does hit the mark—and doesn’t—still might surprise you.
WIRED: Thanks so much for talking with us about this. Does anything here actually resemble cat physiology or behavior?
Leslie Sprunger: I watched the trailer a couple of times. It’s actually kind of interesting when you look specifically at what they’re doing. They’re clearly not trying to make these characters appear to be cats in real life. If they wanted to do that, they could just use computer animation. But they use a couple of things that are really very characteristically feline that create that perception in the viewer that are characters that are meant to be cats.
The two things that I think are right are the shape and placement of the ears and the tail motion.
OK! Let’s start with the ears. Are they proportional? What is it about them that says, “Yes, they clearly put in effort.”
It’s the placement on the head and the shape. They’re not proportional. If a cat’s head were as big as a human head, the ears would be much larger. That would look weird. They’d be sort of comical. It’s not about fidelity to the size of the cat’s ear to the size of the head, it’s more about what aesthetically looks reasonable.
Cats have more ear movement than humans do, but I can’t say that I noticed any. It’s more that I was just struck that they’re just cat ears: They’re upright, they’re triangular, they mostly face forward, and they’re perched more toward the top of the head, versus the sides of the head like humans are or even some breeds of dogs.
You mentioned the tail too. That seems like it would have been easy to phone in, but what did you see that seemed true to cats?
It’s the movement. Are you a cat owner?
I have been in my life, I’m not currently. I’m a dog person now.
Well, I think that anybody that is a cat owner and likes cats and thinks they’re fun to watch would really notice right away—the ways that I can see the tails move in several of the spots in the trailer strikes me as very characteristics of what domestic cats do with their tails. They tend to move a lot, in all kinds of directions. They move more when they’re excited and agitated. They move a little less when they’re calm or not wound up about things. That sort of characteristic movement that cats do with their tails I think is produced pretty strikingly.
There are some places where there’s a lot of other movement and just a little bit of tail movement, but the key thing is that it makes the tails look like they’re part of the creature. They’re not just sort of passive bundles of material that are hanging off their backsides. You know what I mean?
Absolutely. Like the tail reflects what the rest of the body is doing in some ways.
Right. Cats use their tails for balance, as well, and there’s some suggestion of some of that as well. There’s this scene about 45 seconds in or so where one of the characters is doing a pirouette, and the tail is moving along with that in a way that gives you the sense that the tail is part of how she’s balancing.
Is there anything other than the obvious human things—cats don’t walk around on two legs—anything that you just can’t deal with?
There are some clear limitations here. They’ve got human actors, and we’ve got a different shape and proportion than cats. For example, there are some scenes where they have them on all fours. But when we’re on all fours our proportions are different from a cats. Our legs are longer, so there’s a lot more bending of the knee that you can see in these characters than would be present in a cat, for sure.
I don’t see that as such a detraction. They clearly spend most of the time in an upright position. It’s not like we’re being distracted by the fact that these people are trying to be quadrupeds but they’re really not.
The bigger question then I guess is why they’re on four legs in the first place, if they can use two.
Right, yeah. But I think again it’s more about being evocative of feline behavior or movement. The tail thing I think is huge, but also the style of movement reminded me of cats quite a bit. They intentionally doing a lot of slinking around in a way that’s pretty similar to cats. And in the trailer they show the cats being very playful, and what looks like maybe destroying their owner’s belongings. That general disregard for their owner’s stuff is also pretty characteristic.
One thing that’s sort of an interesting difference if you think about it is that these characters display a wide range of facial expressions because that’s what we do as humans. Cats actually, although it’s not to say that they don’t have facial expressions, they don’t have anywhere near the range of facial expressions that humans do. The things that show up on these characters’ faces—joy or sadness or amusement—those are human characteristics, at least in terms of the facial expression.
It also appears that there’s some kind of an organized social structure here, which is not so much a cat thing.
I guess without the emotions it would be a pretty boring movie, so at least there’s that.
It would be weird to have a bunch of people walking around all the time with the same stoic expression that most cats have. I think cats can get away with it. I don’t know that humans really can.
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