Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The problem with making a Tom and Jerry movie is that you can’t make it about Tom and Jerry

Illustration for article titled The problem with making a Tom and Jerry movie is that you can’t make it about Tom and Jerry
Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

Note: The writer of this review watched Tom And Jerry on a digital screener from home. Before making the decision to see it—or any other film—in a movie theater, please consider the health risks involved. Here’s an interview on the matter with scientific experts.

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Tom and Jerry are elemental. The gray, mishap-prone feline and his resourceful rodent prey have endured for 81 years on their strengths as the quintessential cartoon cat-and-mouse team: Tom chases Jerry, Jerry outsmarts Tom, the outsmarting inevitably results in some sort of painful, creatively visualized physical comeuppance. That baroque approach to slapstick violence is the other key to the act’s longevity, the inspiration behind at least one similarly deathless parody and the barbaric spark that long ago animated the imaginations of William Hanna, Joseph Barbera, and Chuck Jones. Even in the lesser, less funny shorts where the characters are friends, they still have a tendency to smack one another (or get smacked by others) into comically deformed shapes. It’s a tried-and-true recipe for lizard-brain belly laughs: zero dialogue, no fuss, lots of muss involving sharp or heavy objects found in and outside the home.

What Tom and Jerry are not, however, is built for feature length. At a time when almost every piece of VHS flotsam has its ardent partisans, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone defending Tom And Jerry: The Movie, a Rescuers knockoff from 1992 in which the stars speak and sing in the voices of Richard Kind and Dana Hill. Not that this has dissuaded the franchise’s current corporate minders at Warner Bros. from churning out direct-to-video vehicles for the duo, an under-the-radar franchise that handled the rivalry’s incompatibility with long-form narrative by dropping it into stories from the public domain or cross-pollinating it with other IP from the Warner archives. Despite nearly a century of headlining gigs, when it comes to any project with a runtime longer than 30 minutes, Tom and Jerry function most naturally as supporting players in someone else’s story—the dilemma and the solution vexing the new Tom And Jerry movie from director Tim Story.

A live-action/animation hybrid with the unique distinction of being one of the few studio films to have its release bumped up during the COVID-19 pandemic, Tom And Jerry at least has novelty on its side. In lieu of the three-dimensional computer-animated sprites that became the subgenre’s default in the wake of Alvin And The Chipmunks and its squeakquels, the film’s (non-human) animals retain a hand-drawn look rooted in the vintage MGM shorts—a style that lands Tom And Jerry somewhere between Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse. And while the technique doesn’t always blend with real-world textures like shadow and rain, there remains some gee-whiz wonder in Tom and Jerry trashing a hotel suite, the camera gliding across the chaos as cartoon claws shred physical pillowcases and drapery.

It’d make a great proof of concept, but you can’t build a whole movie out of fireworks factories. And so Tom And Jerry by and large becomes an ensemble comedy, a format Story has worked to varying degrees of success throughout his career—though in this case, the results are more Think Like A Man than Barbershop. The action revolves around the aforementioned inn, the Royal Gate, where down-on-her-luck Kayla (Chloë Grace Moretz) scams her way into a temporary position during the preparations for the blowout wedding of two internet-famous New Yorkers, Preeta (Pallavi Sharda) and Ben (Colin Jost). Having hoodwinked the oblivious manager, Mr. Dubros (Rob Delaney), Kayla forms an easygoing connection with bartender Cameron (Jordan Bolger) and bellhop Joy (Patsy Ferran) and causes trouble for the snootier egomaniacs on the staff, event planner Terence (Michael Peña) and head chef Jackie (Ken Jeong). It’s incredibly helpful that these characters wear their names pinned to their chests. Otherwise their characterization leans so hard on established onscreen personas that you might as well call Jackie “Chef Ken Jeong.”

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Tom And Jerry
Tom And Jerry
Photo: Warner Bros.

The stakes of the wedding and what it spells for the happy couple’s future and the careers of the Royal Gate staff give shape to Tom And Jerry. Yet even in light of Tom And Jerry: The Movie, Tom And Jerry Meet Sherlock Holmes, and Tom And Jerry: Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory, it’s still bizarre that this is the premise the characters’ big-time comeback is staked to. Just imagine how antsy the kids watching this are going to get as Mr. Dubros expounds on what makes a marriage work and Preeta frets over a lost engagement ring. Aside from Kayla being Tom and Jerry’s entry point into the fracas—as a way of proving herself to Dubros, she hires Tom to rid the hotel of Jerry—these characters are as incidental, elementary, and/or anonymous as any human in a Tom And Jerry cartoon. The script, by Brigsby Bear screenwriter Kevin Costello, works overtime to provide them with some sense of purpose, but that largely comes through in clunky declarations like Kayla describing how it feels to open her phone everyday and see her peers thriving while she scrapes by in the gig economy. There’s less-sweaty writing to be found in the way Kayla’s attempts to camouflage her lack of bona fides mirror Jerry’s evasion of Tom.

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It’s a paradox that undermines the entire enterprise: The material necessary to nudge Tom And Jerry past the 100-minute mark feels unnecessary. The main attraction is the type of scrapping that Terence at one points calls an “animal tornado.” (The film lands a few of good lines, mostly on the basis of delivery; points to Delaney for credibly selling “Tom is an employee. He has a name tag.”) Tom And Jerry can’t even let the cat and mouse escape from such bogus, contemporary studio-film standards: While all of this is playing out, Tom nurses a dream of musical stardom, signaled in the early goings when he daydreams of his face on the Madison Square Garden marquee next to John Legend’s.

But why does Tom need a greater motivation than “Eat Jerry”? What larger motivation for Jerry is there than “Don’t get eaten by Tom”? You can throw all the millennial angst, pigeons lip syncing A Tribe Called Quest, and kid-pleasing shitting-dog gags in the world between those two poles, and you’ll still get stuck on the hurdle of Tom and Jerry operating best in antic, seven-minute bursts. It’s as though Tom And Jerry was intended to be enjoyed from home all along: Not only are you free to poke around on your phone between the set pieces, but you can use that phone to call up the 90-odd Tom And Jerry cartoons that also come with your HBO Max subscription.

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