Asking someone to make a Tom & Jerry movie is like asking a novice gymnast to perform intense acrobatics. With every attempt, they have to figure out how to work a cat-and-mouse dynamic that thrived in short bursts into a feature-length object. And more often than not, they strain themselves in the process. Sometimes, we see properties like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory get a sprinkle of the dynamic duo. Other times, we get a musical that makes the unforgivable decision of making Tom and Jerry talk. So where does 2021’s Tom & Jerry fit into the bunch? Well, the good news is that neither Tom nor Jerry talk.
The bad news is that praising Tom & Jerry largely involves everything it doesn’t do. Gone are the insane attempts to redefine the duo for a new generation. Instead, this movie spends 101 minutes on things that were already tired ten years ago. Because if there’s any movie with a master template on putting animated characters in a live-action setting, it would be The Smurfs. That movie flopped its way into existence by leaning on a geriatric’s view on What The Cool Kids Like™. And ten years later, we have a movie that falls short in much the same way. It pushes its title characters aside in favor of stock human characters that merely move the plot forward. And when it tries to be trendy, it relies on “hip” modern songs and lazy reference humor.
One only needs to look at the plot to see the obvious problem spots. Despite the initial impressions, this is not solely about Tom and Jerry in New York City doing their usual antics. The film’s actual protagonist is Kayla (Chloë Grace Moretz), who fakes her way into being the event planner for NYC’s finest hotel. Along the way, she finds out that Jerry not only lives there but is also the source of the hotel’s infestation problem. As a result, she hires Tom to get rid of him before a high-profile wedding takes place. But like any cat-and-mouse dynamic, the outcome is not simple. In fact, the chaos they spread ends up endangering the hotel, the wedding to come, and even her career.
It’s already questionable that a literal cat-and-mouse movie has a human as the central focus. After all, this is a property in which the humans are so non-descript you don’t see their faces. So the fact that Kevin Costello’s screenplay has large chunks without Tom and Jerry feels like a violation of the formula. In all fairness, Kayla faking her way to success makes for an engaging introduction to a character. However, it’s not a piece of character building that deserves as much time as it does. By the time she finally lands the job, it’s easy to forget this is even about a cat-and-mouse dynamic.
Still, Kayla is an upgrade over the caricatures that make up the rest of the human cast. Perhaps the worst example of this is the wedding couple of Ben (Colin Jost) and Preeta (Pallavi Sharda). What makes their subplot a drag is how it uses basic tropes to convey their prickly relationship. Not one minute into their scenes and they already come off as a stereotypically mismatched pair. Ben, in particular, does nothing but posture in front of Preeta. Their scenes would be tolerable if they only showed up for seconds at a time. But as with Kayla, Tom & Jerry cannot help but eventually give them top priority. In fact, the film’s climax is predicated on the same “I want to make it up to her” goal you see in most mediocre rom-coms.
If Tom & Jerry makes any distinct choices, it’s in its blend of live-action and animation. Sure, plenty of movies have combined the two mediums, and many of them have been adaptations of classic cartoons. But what makes this stand out is how it picks and chooses between the two. The world we see is not one in which Tom and Jerry are the only things that exist as cartoons. This is a world where cartoon animals are abundant and real-life animals do not exist. From dogs to elephants, every creature has the bouncy personality of classic animation. It’s so proud of its animals that the opening credits give center stage to a rapping cartoon pigeon (Tim Story, who also directs).
This is not to say that the actual integration of live-action and animation is all that seamless. On many occasions, Tom and Jerry have stronger lighting than the physical locations suggest. This results in a lot of moments where the cartoons appear to be on top of a scene and not in the scene itself. But the lack of realism is consistent enough that it sort of becomes a style of its own. If nothing else, it makes Story’s broad approach to comedy a bit easier to stomach. When it’s mainly about people, the comic timing is as basic as you can get. But with a handful of drawn creatures, we get a tiny hint of inspiration.
This hint of inspiration extends to the twenty minutes where the camera is only on the cat and mouse. With no pesky humans in sight, it transforms into the kind of anarchic comedy this movie ought to be. Not only does it give room for gags like an elaborate mousetrap, but it also lets their conflicting dynamic shine. In this respect, it becomes a showcase for the animators to have fun with the material. Like the Tom & Jerry shorts, these scenes work because of the energy and efficiency of the visuals. I very much wish it was longer than twenty minutes, but at least it serves as good potential for a future Tom & Jerry short.
All of this begs the question: why is this movie a thing? From the premise to the jokes, it cribs from other properties and does little to make it refreshing. And any time it does have its own personality, it refuses to let it stick. I suppose the lack of insufferable puns makes it more bearable than The Smurfs, but “more bearable than The Smurfs” should be the movie at its worst. Instead, that phrase best describes the movie at its peak. By no means is this the worst example of Tom & Jerry cinema out there, not with that 1992 musical out in the wild. But since it’s easily the most boring of the bunch, all it achieves is an empty victory. Who ever thought a Tom & Jerry movie could be so good at embodying the human faces of its source material? – Mark Tan
Tom & Jerry is available in theaters and on HBO Max.
The film stars Chloë Grace Moretz, Michael Peña, Rob Delaney, Jordan Bolger, Colin Jost, and Pallavi Sharda.