There was little optimism going into Warner Brother’s live-action/animated Tom and Jerry movie. While the cat-and-mouse duo are the kings of cartoon comedy, the marketing evoked painful memories of bygone films like The Smurfs or Alvin and the Chipmunks. Having finally seen the film, I’ve some good news and bad news. The good news is, Tom and Jerry is a cut above its predecessors. The bad news is, that’s hardly saying much.
In Tom and Jerry, the sudden appearance of a mischievous mouse (Jerry) in an upper-crust New York City hotel prompts aspiring event planner (Chloë Grace Moretz) to call upon an alley-cat (Tom) for help. Before long, Tom and Jerry’s bitter rivalry escalates to the point of threatening her career, an extravagant wedding, and the hotel’s very survival.
Based on the classic Hanna-Barbera short films, Tom and Jerry shines when focused on the tried-and-true slapstick on which the franchise was founded upon. The unrelenting violence and well-timed humor of the original cartoons are beautifully reimagined in this contemporary setting. The hotel makes for the perfect battle arena for Tom and Jerry’s trademark mayhem, and director Tim Story does well to utilize the environment to the advantage of the comedy. I was thoroughly entertained whenever Tom and Jerry were at each other’s throats. And fortunately, these “chase scenes” occur as often as the action scenes of an Avengers movie.
As much as the direction and writing, the stellar animation contributes greatly to Tom and Jerry’s appeal in this film. It’s fluid, expressive, and appropriately kinetic. All the same, when Tom and Jerry need to exhibit more sincere emotion, the animators convey it masterfully. The character designs, while moderately modernized, stay true to what came before in those classic Hanna-Barbera cartoons. Although, while the animation is top-notch, the characters do not blend well in their real world environment. The lighting, shading, and textures are so understated that the cartoon characters appear flat and pasted in. It’s a far cry from the believability of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Also to the film’s detriment, Tom and Jerry are not the primary focus. That distinction goes to Moretz’s character, Kayla, and the colorful cast that she encounters at the Royal Gate Hotel. These include the scheming deputy manager Terrance (Michael Peña), the hotel’s owner Mr. DuBros (Rob Delaney), and the soon-to-be newly weds Preeta Mehta and Ben (Pallavi Sharda and Colin Jost, respectively). The bulk of the performances are schlocky, but serviceable. Moretz is mildly charming as a crafty shyster, and Peña has some of the only funny lines in the entire film. Sharda is the standout here, being the one actor that doesn’t feel like they’re performing in a Disney Channel movie. Regardless, the human characters take up far too much screen time. Their motivations are muddled, their attempts at humor generally fall flat, and their uninteresting ‘drama’ distract from the movie’s main draw: Tom and Jerry.
This is the prevailing issue of these live-action/animated hybrid films. Like Space Jam and Looney Tunes: Back in Action before it, Tom and Jerry is torn between an entertaining cartoon cast, and a bland human story. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? remains the only hybrid film to excel in both ends of the spectrum. One may feel inclined to forgive Warner Brothers for focusing primarily on their human characters, as the simplistic formula of Tom and Jerry does not instantly lend itself well to the feature-length format. What makes that argument moot is that the movie itself presents the building blocks for a story that could focus solely on the cat and mouse. The film starts with Tom as an aspiring pianist, putting on a performance that generates revenue. Suddenly, his income is stolen by Jerry, who is a poor urchin looking to buy a new home. This leads to an obvious chase that forces Jerry to take up sanctuary in the hotel, which he thusly decides to call home. Tom, meanwhile, spends the movie trying to exact revenge.
For a Tom and Jerry movie, that is the perfect setup. Both Tom and Jerry have clear motivations that naturally bleed together to provide reason for their rivalry. It’s simple, sweet, and stays true to the characters. Having humans shoehorned into the narrative does nothing but bog down what had the potential to be an entertaining experience. Movies like Wall-E prove that you don’t need heavy dialogue to drive a story. The majority of Studio Ghibli’s library prove that you don’t need a traditional three-act structure to be a compelling film. If Warner had been willing to take a chance and simply make a Tom and Jerry-centric movie, this could have been wonderful. The pieces were all there,
Tom and Jerry is a mixed bag in its purest form. The slapstick antics are as entertaining now as they were 80 years ago, but the doleful human story drags the experience down considerably. Still, this is far from a terrible film. It’s a flawed, unassuming, but ultimately harmless little movie with some genuinely entertaining set pieces. You’ll just have to endure some mediocre plot points to get to them. If you’re a fan of Tom and Jerry, or are looking for something to watch with the family this weekend, give this one a go. There’s some fun to be had here.
Tom and Jerry is now playing in theaters, and streaming on HBO Max.