It seems nearly impossible that there’s anyone in the world who isn’t familiar with Tom and Jerry — or, at least, doesn’t recognize them. In fact, the beloved cartoon cat and mouse may be the most famous slapstick act this side of Laurel & Hardy, and their only animated counterparts, arguably, would be Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner. William Hanna and Joseph Barbera’s first Tom and Jerry short was released by MGM in 1940, and it’s not surprising that the two characters have undergone some minor or major changes across different eras, whether that be in terms of shape, size, texture, and design or in introducing new plots, gags, and adventures for the duo. One would expect that Tim Story’s 21st-century, live-action revamp would likewise evince further aesthetic shifts, all while sticking to the material’s upbeat tenor and indulging in a little nostalgia for the franchise’s glory days. But in adapting it to a feature format, the crucial work to be done is figuring how to successfully render the cleverly precise, kinetic, and action-packed essence of the short-form cartoons — and this is exactly the ground on which almost all long-version Tom and Jerry’s films have failed since Phil Roman’s 1992, Tom and Jerry: The Movie. And so, while Warner Brothers’ latest attempt may not be the worst of the bunch, it still largely fails to bring any new wit or flavor to the party.
For starters, it’s confusing why executives felt compelled to make this latest entry into a mélange of live-action and cartoon. It’s an approach that makes sense in the form’s more successful films, like Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Space Jam — thematic relevance in the case of the former, and the appeal of uniting such massive entities as Michael Jordan and the Looney Tunes crew in the latter. But in the case of Tom and Jerry, there’s no conceptual logic beyond mere delineation between the humans and animals. And the animation itself means that just a glance at these favorite childhood pals gives a very false impression; it’s not that they don’t look the same as always, but they certainly don’t feel the same. It’s clear that Story and his group of animators wanted to retain the vintage 2-D appearance of the pair, but despite that throwback approach, both feel more-or-less disjointed from their “real” surroundings (in much the same way that Christopher Lennertz’s soundtrack seems somehow out-of-tune with the escapades). Tom and Jerry, instead, appear more like some unlively maquettes, not really more than what one might find in the crudest animated ditties on Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network. Setting that aside for a second, young kids will likely find this appropriately zany and frequently amusing — and their parents may share some faint smiles along the way — but it’s to the film’s detriment that it never tries to cultivate (or stimulate) the imaginative or creative faculties the way the best animated films do.
Things in the human world don’t fare much better. Strangely, the film seems to push its titular leading duo into subsidiary roles and complementary situations — and let’s not even begin on the cameos of Spike the bulldog or the alley-cats — in favor of piling up endless cheesy badinage. The larger part of the movie, then, is focused on Kayla (Chloë Grace Moretz), who, after losing her job as a bicycle delivery girl, quite easily fakes her identity and finds a job in a luxurious Big Apple hotel — and yes, this is when Tom and Jerry suddenly find themselves in a Home Alone 2: Lost in New York-style setting. Thankfully, Moretz’s natural charm and screen presence, as well as her legitimate instinct for facial and gestural comedy, keep the film from falling completely apart, while Michael Peña also shows up to, well…be Michael Peña. And as a wedding ceremony subplot seeks to inject a soap-opera energy into the foreground, it also, predictably, allows Tom and Jerry to put their frenemyship aside for a while and come to Kayla’s rescue.
In fairness, it’s not impossible to find a few mild moments of carefree playfulness in this kitschy farce, mostly as the cartoon superstars run amok and wreak havoc, even becoming literal wedding-crashers. But it’s never enough to recommend the film as an entirely pleasant cinematic experience — let alone, a memorable one. If you come into the experience thinking you’ll be seeing this sweet cartoon duo at their best, it’s best to calibrate expectations: little is of note in this awkward cock-and-bull story, with the proceedings mostly built on a cat and mouse playing cat and mouse. But even if Tom and Jerry don’t get the opportunity, this time around, to relive their fame and glory days and aren’t given the treatment they deserve, the film remains a harmless enough watch. At its best, it reminds us what was always so cherubic and appealing about this feline-rodent tandem; at its worst, it suggests that is now all lost. But hey, let’s not be too unfair: they at least get to watch a Yankees’ game, share pictures on their joint Instagram’s account, and witness pigeons spit rap bars while flying off into the sunset.
You can currently catch Tim Story’s Tom and Jerry in theaters or streaming on HBO Max.