Film Review: Tom and Jerry (2021)

Directed by: Tim Story; Runtime: 101 minutes
Grade: D

Despite a rich history that includes the likes of Mary Poppins and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, there’s always the urge to remind Hollywood that combining real-life actors with hand-drawn animated characters from the past rarely turns out well in the modern era. Yet, for every Garfield or Smurfs or most recently Woody Woodpecker, all tonally jumbled and awkwardly unfunny pieces of work, there’s a Sonic the Hedgehog that comes along to prove that, sure, it’s possible to get the balance between realities and styles of humor right. Which brings us to Tom and Jerry, the latest of these hybrid endeavors from Barbershop and Fantastic Four director Tim Story, a project that had been kicked around in development for over a decade prior to it finally being filmed shortly before the pandemic brought Hollywood to a standstill. It’s a decade-long tale that comes to a thud of a conclusion, resulting in yet another outrageously unamusing live-action cartoon that loses its grip on a relative sense of reality.

Perhaps even less than other classic cartoons, there isn’t a lot to the story of Tom and Jerry, just a string of other recurring characters who complicate the endless chase between the titular house cat and a mouse that's just a step or two ahead of him. For the most part, the cartoons take place in a run-of-the-mill American home, filled with obstacles and makeshift weapons -- matches, fireplace pokers, drills, clothes irons, you name it -- that provide the two adversaries plenty of ways to thwart one another. Sometimes they go on boats and to train stations, but these were unique excursions. This live-action film can be seen as one of those excursions, sort of: both Tom and Jerry are trying to find a way to live inside of a high-profile hotel, during the period where a ritzy wedding will be taking place. A newly-hired employee at the hotel, Kayla (Chloe Grace Moretz), has been tasked with managing their presence in the building and keeping the mouse specifically away from the wedding proceedings. Jerry, and to a lesser extent Tom, have other plans.

Look, I’m not really interested in getting into the debate about violence in older cartoons, but it’s worth noting that the personalities of Tom and Jerry are particularly at the mercy of the zany whack-a-mouse antics between ‘em. Even though they live in a weirdly crossbred world where animals can at the very least talk amongst themselves, the two of them never speak, which forces their brutal chasing after one another to be the extent of their characters; Tom’s reasonably smart but reckless, Jerry’s a smarter troublemaker, and that’s about it. This live-action movie shoulders the challenge of being truthful to this lineage while also being careful with modern family-friendly sensibilities, so we’ve got a cat and mouse that never speak despite other dogs, cats, birds, elephants, etc. around them being chatty, and where the slapstick comedy carefully tiptoes around point-blank violence with obvious weapons. Amid mixed signals about what sort of reality we’re working with, one where a hotel apparently built in a mouse hole at one time that slides along a wall, there’s a void here in the shape of why it’s worth suspending this much disbelief.

Those who wrote Tom and Jerry understand the conundrum, and that’s where the rest of the film’s hotel setup comes from, providing a place where the homeless (?) cat and mouse desperately want to stay. Enter Chloe Grace Moretz, who plays a seemingly sharp hustler of a millennial and serves as a way for the audience to, in some form, connect with the animated characters as she tries to keep them out. Moretz seems to be at her best when portraying a character with a somber backstory or a heavy sarcastic streak, and she’s working with half of that equation with the vivacious yet deceptive Kayla, a fairly typical yet annoyingly featureless twentysomething who laments her lack of experience and qualifying skills. How she finds herself in a position of authority at a prestigious hotel is the stuff of, well, cartoons: the flippant rhythm of Chloe Grace Moretz’s delivery ensures that little will be taken seriously as she “fakes it until she makes it”, or in how she interacts with the overly stiff hotel managers played by wasted comic-relief potentials Rob Delaney and Michael Pena.

There’s this massive, important wedding at the center of Tom and Jerry that’s filled with the extravagance of elephants, drone cameras, and the fawning adoration of social-media “influencers”, and, frankly, it seems like it’s just more trouble than it’s worth. Don’t ask any questions about why Kayla’s hired to help oversee this event or why her resume isn’t looked at with suspicion, because that’s a dead end; however, the growing rom-com sappiness at the heart it all can’t help but make one question why it needs to be there in the first place. Sure, it’s there because the event itself creates more of a collision course with the film’s animated stars, but it also presents a glaring and unnecessary reason why Kayla wouldn’t be hired on the spot and why the hotel wouldn’t take any chances with not hiring pros to get rid of freeloading critters. While, yes, this could be viewed as nitpicking at what’s essentially a cartoon in motion, it’s also the aspect responsible for holding the focus of slightly more adult-minded audiences, and there's little care for any sort of internal logic.

Brief moments are still there when Tom and Jerry captures the live-action cartoon goals of the production, specifically a scene where the two characters completely ransack a hotel room chasing after one another, marrying clever flowing camerawork with their whirlwind movements. Stuff breaks everywhere, debris flies in every which direction, and the animation and production design come rather close to selling the illusion not unlike how Who Frame Roger Rabbit? does at its most energetic points. These exists in bursts, shorter than cartoons but about the same length as the “action” bits in an episode, which should appease both the youngest of audiences and the nostalgic for however fleeting those moments end up being. Even if there’s some enjoyment to be had in those slapstick antics in Tom and Jerry, there’s over an hour and a half of ineffectual rom-com and soul-searching workplace dramedy padding it all out, time that’d be better spent revisiting the beautifully-drawn classic cartoons of a bygone era.

Photos: Warner Bros.


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