“Tom & Jerry” will make you wish for animated death

Tom & Jerry Tom & Jerry (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Tim Story crafts a horrid live-action/animation hybrid straight out of the 2000s — fans of old-school cartoons beware.

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Who actually wants movies like Tom & Jerry? Think back to the dregs of the Alvin & the Chipmunks movies from the aughts: the awkward blend of live action and animation, the creaky dragging of baby-boomer cartoon mascots awkwardly into present-day pop culture, the incessant noise of it all. What’s worse, the characters you’ve come to see — the ones your kids never knew — come on screen in a form you hardly recognize.

And lo, in 2021, we get Tim Story‘s Tom & Jerry, a certifiable squeakquel of a motion picture that feels as much a throwback to that earlier generation of crappy kid’s movies as it is the more charming original-recipe versions we used to watch in short film form on Nickelodeon.

As is the fashion for films like these, Tom & Jerry transplants the classic Hanna-Barbera slapstick duo from their rightful place in vaudevillian shorts to modern-day (pre-COVID) New York. Tom’s a dirt-poor cat trying to make his way in the world by busking for money (and pretending to be blind, though that’s not advertised: the gag seems to be that the folks watching him play piano think he’s blind because he’s got sunglasses on), only for his gig to be busted by a mischievous mouse by the name of Jerry.

Tom & Jerry (Warner Bros.)
Tom & Jerry (Warner Bros.)

Searching for a place to call home, the two separately wind up putting down stakes in the Royal Gate Hotel (not real, though there is a Royal Gate Hotel in Hanoi), where their literal cat-and-mouse game continues.

All this, of course, takes place under the nose of a roster of shallow, unlikable human characters with which we’re forced to spend the bulk of our screentime. First among these is Kayla (Chloë Grace Moretz), an ambitious but impatient girl who fakes-it-till-she-makes-it into a job as an intern at the hotel; she hires Tom to find Jerry since we all know mice are murder for hotels… especially since they’re about to play venue to a high-profile wedding of a couple of dim socialites named Preeta (Pallavi Sharda, the only person to escape this with some dignity) and Ben (Colin Jost, who’s basically just doing his Weekend Update routine in polos).

Of course, Kayla raises the ire of bilked events manager Terrence (Michael Peña), who goes crazy at all the chaos around him, Jason-Alexander-in-Dunston-Checks-In-style. Heck, Tom and Jerry might even have to — you guessed it! — team up before the weekend is over.

And that’s all you really need to know: there’s way too much plot, and simultaneously not enough, screenwriter Kevin Costello essentially filling the Tom and Jerry-less bits with the kind of lazy, hack formula writing not even the most seasoned actors can sell. After a while, dialogue scenes feel like filler, words haphazardly scattered together and shoved in the actor’s mouths to fill time in between the more expensive animated bits.

It’s been a good long while since I’ve seen a film this resigned to its perfunctory B-plots.

Even the people who will end up loving this movie (read: rubes and literal children) aren’t going to care about whether Kayla will hook up with the nice, boring bartender Cameron (Jordan Bolger) or if Preeta and Ben will make it through the wedding okay. It’s been a good long while since I’ve seen a film this resigned to its perfunctory B-plots. Even game actors like Moretz and Jeong don’t even seem to be having fun; Rob Delaney as a kooky, credulous hotel manager and Kristen-Schaal-weird bellhop Joy (Patsy Ferran) are the only actors truly vibing at the wavelength this film should be on.

The real appeal, of course, is watching Tom and Jerry chase each other through one outrageous situation after another, and even that feels rote. You’ll hardly find the spark of the original shorts here — the setpieces aren’t all that inventive, the live-action/CG blend is disquieting, and every millisecond of the runtime is wallpapered over with a busy, desperate score from Christopher Lennertz (when it’s not bombarding you with a one-note hip-hop soundtrack).

Tom & Jerry sets up scenarios, only to not even show them: they bring Ken Jeong in as a prissy chef who’d just hate it if a mouse got in his kitchen, but we don’t even get a setpiece of Jeong chasing Jerry around with a frying pan. Story et al. think we’re far more interested in whether Colin Jost listens to his bride-to-be about having a small wedding than any of the good stuff.

Tom & Jerry
Tom & Jerry (Warner Bros.)

It’s all so dull, you find your mind wandering into the bizarre logistics of Tom and Jerry’s world — one where only animals are animated (the film implicitly establishes that humans eat cartoon meat), and all of those animals have voices except for Tom and Jerry. Tom gets a couple of sequences with the angel and devil on his shoulder, voiced respectively by Tone Bell and Lil Rel Howery, so we’re left to presume that that’s what he sounds like. But then, he plays the piano and launches into a downright caustic hip-hop-inflected ballad complete with bizarre autotune. The questions abound: Do animated, sentient animals have rights? How do you transport cartoon elephants across state lines? And why are all the poor, criminally-inclined animals coded as Black or Hispanic?

Sure, it’s no surprise that a treacly kid’s movie is bad; I’m not telling you anything you couldn’t already guess from the title, the format, and the cast list. But it’s one thing to guess it, and it’s another to actually suffer through it for 100 grueling minutes. It doesn’t even matter that I tell you the movie’s a piece of crap: if you have young kids, and you’re a year into quarantine, and they need something new to keep them occupied for a couple of hours, you’re going to throw this on. You might even glance up from your laundry or your workstation every once in a while to smirk at Tom and Jerry chasing each other around a live-action hotel.

But just because a movie clears a very low bar doesn’t mean it gets brownie points for aiming so low. Tom & Jerry isn’t better than just throwing on a dozen of the old Hanna-Barbera sketches, and at least you won’t have to listen to as much autotune.

Tom & Jerry bound recklessly into the 3D world of HBO Max (or, if you dare, a real-life movie theater) Friday, February 26th.

Tom & Jerry Trailer:

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