Tom and Jerry have been whacking each other over the heads with frying pans since 1940, and even 88 years ago animated cat and mouse rivals were seen as passé. But they became the best version of this trope, which no other cartoon duo has ever outdone. There have been many iterations of Tom & Jerry over the decades, but the long-awaited fully animated Tom & Jerry: The Movie (1992) was a failure during Disney’s Renaissance. The characters have stuck around thanks to endless repeats and direct-to-video films, until a new series called Tom and Jerry Tales (2007-8) was produced and classic clips keep children entertained on YouTube for free. So now, in 2021, Warner Bros. are giving them a $50M showcase with a live-action/animated hybrid movie, Tom & Jerry.
Originally announced in 2009 as a live-action prequel explaining Tom and Jerry’s dislike for each other (isn’t it enough to accept cats and mice don’t get along?), the project briefly switched to being fully animated like the ’92 version, before Tim Story (Shaft) was hired after mentioning to WB executives that he enjoyed the characters. Story’s new version takes the Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1987) path, establishing a world where humans co-exist with ‘toons. Not too much is made of this arrangement, which is strange considering Detective Pikachu (2019) did something similar to great acclaim, but it gets around the awkwardness of a cartoon Tom and Jerry encountering real cats, mice, dogs, and birds.
Kayla Forester (Chloë Grace Moretz) is our Bob Hoskins-like human face of the story, who cons her way into a job at the plush Royal Gate Hotel, to help event manager Terrence Mendoza (Michael Peña) plan the high-profile wedding of celebrity couple Ben (Colin Jost) and Preeta (Pallavi Sharda). Matters are complicated for Kayla when the presence of a mouse called Jerry is brought to her attention and she hires a cat called Tom to catch the vermin, as the two animals cause chaos involving Ben’s bulldog Spike (voiced by Bobby Cannavale) and Preeta’s pampered puss Toots. Can Kayla keep her job and prevent hotel manager Henry DuBros (Rob Delaney) learning the truth about her, while ensuring a lavish wedding goes without a hitch despite a cat and mouse going berserk in the building?
The decision one has to make when making a Tom & Jerry movie is how to handle the fact these characters don’t talk, and have a limited way of interacting with each other (i.e. violence). They work brilliantly as short cartoons, but anything longer means you have to find ways to change things without destroying what everyone likes. I’m pleased Tom & Jerry didn’t make the mistake of giving them voices, and I approve of how the movie has humans and cartoon animals interacting without it being commented on.
Chloë Grace Moretz is also a pleasant and likeable actress to put at the centre of things, not least because she almost looks cartoonishly beautiful and has such expressive eyes. I always loved the adult casting of Dennis the Menace (1993) because everyone looked like they’d stepped out of some 1950s comic-strip panels, and Moretz has a similar vibe to her. I don’t know if starring in Tom & Jerry is something she’s entirely happy about, after a run of performances skewing more adult (The Equalizer, Neighbours 2, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Suspiria), but she acquits herself well in a role that leans into her comedy chops. The first half-hour is the most enjoyable, with Moretz capably holding our attention, but the material is stretched thin and her character isn’t developed enough.
Tom and Jerry themselves are almost a sideshow in their own movie, as Kevin Costello’s screenplay doesn’t focus on their antics because of the limitations of them as characters. So you just get occasional moments of slapstick from the eponymous cat and mouse, but little of it feels inspired or memorable. This is primarily Kayla’s story Tom and Jerry are just part of her problems, so it doesn’t rise above a generic movie-of-the-week aimed at teenage girls. The Tom and Jerry stuff also lacks the anarchic edge of their classic shorts. It’s amusing to see plenty of Hanna-Barbera cartoon tropes wheeled out (visible smells wafting on the breeze, lumps that grow from heads like pink mole hills, perfectly semi-circular mouse holes on skirting boards, etc), but taken as a whole Tom & Jerry just isn’t that funny.
The supporting cast do what they can, but nobody has much of a character to play except for Moretz. This becomes a serious problem by the end, when we’re expected to care about the Preeta and Ben’s wedding and romantic life, as neither character is interesting or funny. And they’re certainly not relatable as out-of-touch celebs in a five-star hotel, seated atop elephants during their wedding ceremony. Colin Jost (Saturday Night Live) is particularly weak in a large enough role to realise he’s definitely not going to be the next Bill Murray, Mike Myers, or even Kate McKinnon.
Sadly, Tom & Jerry is unlikely to reignite older audience’s passions for the iconic duo, and younger fans aren’t going to remember much about it once it’s over. It’s entertaining enough to warrant a single viewing, but the ways Tim Story decided to bring these characters into a modern setting just don’t work (and boils down to putting lots of hip hop music on the soundtrack). It should have focused more on Tom and Jerry themselves, with a string of dizzying set-pieces that captured the tone of the classic cartoons and pushed them further because modern audiences can handle it. Instead, they made a disposable comedy about a young woman who cheated her way into a hotel job, with a bit of animated slapstick for her to look upset about.
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UK • FRANCE • GERMANY • USA | 2021 | 101 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
director: Tim Story.
writer: Kevin Costello (based on characters created by William Hanna & Joseph Barbera).
starring: Chloë Grace Moretz, Michael Peña, Colin Jost, Rob Delaney, Ken Jeong & Pallavi Sharda.