Film Review – Tom and Jerry
Tom and Jerry
I am of the firm belief that to appreciate great films, one must watch and appreciate the bad ones. It’s a delicate balancing act – how can one truly understand what makes a movie good without understanding what makes them terrible? Admittedly, this a bit of a masochistic outlook and has led to a number of mind-numbingly forgettable viewing experiences. Sometimes though, it can produce a diamond in the rough, where joy and entertainment takes precedence over everything else. That’s the beauty of loving movies, right? It’s the constant search for something that will surprise you.
That is not the case with Tom and Jerry (2021).
We come to this realization within the first few seconds, as a flock of animated pigeons fly over the real Manhattan while rapping to the song, “Can I Kick It” by A Tribe Called Quest. The song itself is great, but its placement at the very opening of the film makes no sense. It’s not set up as a joke or to be ironically amusing, it’s just a bunch of birds lip synching to hip hop. It just…exists. And that is basically how the entire film operates: it’s a thing that exists and can be seen by people, and that’s really all there is to it.
But whom exactly is this made for? The original Hanna-Barbera cartoon featuring rivals Tom (the cat) and Jerry (the mouse) dates all the way back to 1940. Adults who grew up on the series may be drawn to some of the familiar slapstick comedy, but nostalgia can only take us so far. The target audience is clearly kids, but will they even know who these characters are? In animation, certain physical rules can be broken to play up the screwball tone. That element doesn’t always translate outside of cartoons. The film now belongs in the exclusive club of beloved animated characters forced into the real world for no reason, joining the ranks of The Smurfs (2011), Yogi Bear (2010), and The Chipmunks (2007).
A big misstep that many of these productions make is not understanding why people want to see them in the first place. While the advertising may promise plenty of action from familiar characters, what we actually get is far from that. Director Tim Story and writer Kevin Costello take the focus away from Tom and Jerry and place it on Chloë Grace Moretz’s Kayla. Kayla is a young woman struggling to survive in The Big Apple. She gets in over her head when she gets hired at a ritzy hotel to help events coordinator Terence (Michael Peña) set up the wedding for socialites Ben (Colin Jost) and Preeta (Pallavi Sharda). Kayla is unqualified for the position but is determined to make things work. Her plans go haywire when Tom and Jerry bring their mayhem into the hotel.
Does this sound like something youngsters will want to see? A person working to pull off a fancy wedding doesn’t sound so appealing – sometimes an audience that comes to watch cartoon characters will just want to watch cartoon characters. There are moments where Tom and Jerry’s hijinks pay off, like during a nighttime scene on an electrical line high above the city. But these instances are few and far between. What fills in that space are dreadfully unfunny exchanges between performers who are funny when given the right material. Chloë Grace Moretz does her absolute best to make the most of the situation, but a lot of her jokes fall flat. Michael Peña is an exceptional comedic actor (he was easily the funniest part of the Ant-Man films) and yet he is handcuffed to be stiff and one dimensional. Even Colin Jost and Ken Jeong (who plays the hotel’s head chef) have both proven how funny they are in the past, but here are just lesser versions of themselves.
If there is one thing to appreciate, it’s how the production chose a traditional 2D, hand drawn look for the animated characters. Instead of rendering Tom and Jerry as computer generated 3D models, they’re done in a way that stays true to the classic animated cartoon. A quick internet search finds that all of the yells, shrieks, and screams from them was created using William Hanna’s archival recordings. The interactions between the animated characters and the real environments were convincing enough. Some of the subtler details were impressive, like when Tom and Jerry would walk toward and away from the camera going in and out of focus. Most will pass over that bit, but it shows a nice consideration for the characters to be captured as believably as possible.
Tom and Jerry is not offensive, mean spirited, or dreadful, but it’s also not funny and only slightly charming (and even that’s a stretch). It’s as though the production understood the history of the property but not the soul of it. In a time where family films are in such high abundance, this does little to call attention to itself outside of its mild brand recognition.