Photo: ‘Tom & Jerry’/HBO Max
Tom and Jerry were a huge part of my childhood. In addition to the ‘Looney Tunes’ and ‘Merrie Melodies’ series with Bugs Bunny and Co., Tom and Jerry were among the first cartoons I ever saw when I was a kid. I still have fond memories of sitting in front of the TV and devouring the shorts whenever Cartoon Network ran marathons of the series whether it’s the original run from William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, the quirky Gene Deitch era (with its strong Eastern European animation feel), or the more stylized and comparatively subdued Chuck Jones years.
There’s a reason the gray and white housecat and his brown mouse foil have endured for 81 years since their debut in 1940: they’re the quintessential cat-and-mouse team. There’s a simplicity to the premise: Tom tries to catch Jerry, plucky Jerry always outsmarts unlucky Tom, over-the-top cartoon violence and slapstick gags ensue. The settings or circumstances that trigger the chase might differ (sometimes they might team up against a common problem, and sometimes Tom even wins) but the tried-and-true formula persists. That approach—broad physical humor, little to no dialogue—has wide appeal and transcends cultural barriers, and it’s even inspired an equally long-running parody on ‘The Simpsons’ with Itchy and Scratchy.
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Tom and Jerry got their first feature-length theatrical animated film back in 1992, but it turned off fans for deviating too much from the formula (for example, Tom and Jerry spoke constantly and were friends for most of it) and was a box office failure. We now have another from director Tim Story, this time as a live-action/animated hybrid film. While the new ‘Tom & Jerry’ fares better in capturing the spirit of the original shorts, the movie as a whole still falls short as a family-friendly comedy. But rather than tear it down, let’s instead see what works and what doesn’t.
‘Tom & Jerry’ — Best of Enemies, Worst of Friends
In a way, the new ‘Tom & Jerry’ is almost an origin story of sorts. Taking place in New York, we see Tom pretending to be a blind cat and busking in the streets with dreams of musical stardom and playing with John Legend, while Jerry’s trying to raise money to buy a new home. But Jerry incurs Tom’s wrath by horning in on his racket and the battle is on. Jerry winds up taking refuge at the posh Royal Gate hotel, stealing tiny items to furnish his new home. At the same time, down-on-her-luck young woman Kayla (Chloë Grace Moretz) manages to con her way into a temp job at the hotel assisting event manager Terence (Michael Peña) with setting up the high-profile wedding of wealthy socialites Ben (Colin Jost) and Preeta (Pallavi Sharda).
But when Jerry’s presence is made known, threatening the wedding and the hotel’s reputation, Kayla offers to catch him without anyone knowing and convinces hotel owner Dubros (Rob Delaney) to hire Tom for the task. But things spiral out of control as Tom and Jerry’s battle escalates, all while Kayla winds up befriending Preeta and attempts to evade Terence’s suspicions.
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What Works — The Animation and The Occasional Vibe
Let’s start with what works about the movie. For one, the animation work is quite impressive. Thankfully in bringing Tom and Jerry to our world the film forgoes the realistic CGI approach that we saw in the ‘Garfield’, ‘Smurfs’, or ‘Alvin and the Chipmunks’ movies. In fact, the film takes place in a world where all the humans are live-action and all the animals are animated, similar to ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’. And it commits to the bit, right down to animal products like fish in a market and hanging meat rendered as cartoons. While the characters are still 3D/CGI animated, it’s done in the style and look of the classic shorts and they still retain a hand-drawn 2-D animated feel (almost similar to ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’).
The animated portions and set pieces make up the best moments in the movie. When Tom and Jerry go at it and cause mayhem, it does capture the essence of the classic animated shorts. And while it never gets as violent as those shorts, it’s nice to see a return of old-school slapstick cartoon violence: the kind where a cartoon cat can fall from a great height or get hit in the face with an iron and bounce back moments later. There’s a standout sequence where Tom and Jerry’s fight gets so intense they form into something like a tornado.
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It also does nail the characters: Tom is unlucky but determined and single-minded in his drive to catch Jerry, while Jerry is mischievous bordering on trolling. And most importantly they remain silent (with a brief exception of Tom singing) and any team-ups are only temporary. There are even some references to routines and jokes from the cartoons, as well as appearances from other Tom and Jerry characters like Spike the bulldog (Bobby Cannavale), Butch the cat (Nicky Jam), and Toots. Basically, whenever we focus on the animated characters, the film is at its most fun and funniest.
What Doesn’t — A Lacking Human Story and Unnecessary Pandering
As fun as Tom and Jerry’s antics are, it probably wouldn’t be enough to sustain a feature-length narrative without things getting repetitive. So the script from Kevin Costello also has a storyline that follows the human characters. And unfortunately, this is where things come up short. It’s not the fault of the actors. The cast for the most part turns in fun and lively performances; everyone pretty much knows what kind of movie this is and goes broad to match the heightened reality of the world. Moretz is funny and sweet, playing the straight woman to the cat and mouse; Peña is his reliably entertaining self; Delaney is funny in his obliviousness. As for Jost and Ken Jeong (who plays the hotel’s chef), they pretty much just lean on their respective personas.
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But there’s no getting around it: while not necessarily terrible, the live-action characters’ storyline falls flat in comparison to Tom and Jerry’s. As I was watching, whenever the film cut away to the humans I wound up checking my phone. It might be a little hard to imagine kids and younger viewers connecting with Kayla’s millennial woes, let alone being interested in Ben and Preeta’s relationship troubles. And looking back I feel like the film’s focus is weighted a bit too much in favor of the humans—while Tom and Jerry are fairly prominent, Kayla is arguably the real main character. Her story and character arc, and the goal of making sure the wedding goes according to plan, takes center stage; Tom and Jerry are pretty much ensemble players along for the ride (Tom’s dream of stardom is all but forgotten very quickly). The film’s themes of honesty and dealing with pressure and expectations are serviceable enough, though.
‘Tom & Jerry’ unfortunately also falls prey to a common mistake these animated-to-live-action adaptations make—it tries too hard to look hip. Whether it’s pigeons rapping to A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘Can I Kick It?’; the heavy use of modern slang, like elephants saying “LOL” or “OMG”; or Tom at one point doing the Floss dance. Instead of looking cool it feels very desperate and forced, pandering to whatever it is kids think is cool nowadays. It’s unnecessary: Tom and Jerry are appealing enough on their own.
‘Tom & Jerry’ does have a fun cast and occasionally spirited moments (entirely thanks to its animated characters). As family offering goes, it’s sufficient enough that kids can enjoy it. But it’s also hindered by a weak central plot and forced attempts at trying to be cool.
‘Tom & Jerry’ is now playing in theatres and is available on HBO Max for 31 days.
Cast: Chloë Grace Moretz, Michael Peña, Colin Jost, Rob Delaney, Ken Jeong, Pallavi Sharda, Jordan Bolger, Patsy Ferran
Voice Cast: William Hanna, Mel Blanc, June Foray (via archival recordings); Frank Welker, Bobby Cannavale, Lil Rel Howery, Nicky Jam
Director: Tim Story | Writer: Kevin Costello | Based on: ‘Tom and Jerry’ by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera | Producer: Chris DeFaria | Music: Christopher Lennertz | Cinematography: Alan Stewart | Edited by: Peter S. Elliot
By Mario Yuwono
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