Movie Curiosities: Tom & Jerry
WB has been quite openly eager to revitalize their Hanna-Barbera assets. This much was obvious when they tried to launch a full-fledged Hanna-Barbera superfranchise with Scoob!. In my review of that movie, I said “Don’t even get me started on all the inherent difficulties in rebooting ‘Tom and Jerry’ as a CGI film franchise for modern families.”
Well, now I guess I have to get into this.
First of all, it’s hard enough to make a movie with two mute lead characters. It’s hard enough to take two characters who were designed for ten-minute short films and give them enough material to keep them fresh over 90-100 minutes. Take it from somebody old enough to remember Tom and Jerry: The Movie (1992), that movie tried and it didn’t go well.
Secondly, there’s no way that Tom and Jerry could work as 3D semi-photorealistic CGI creations. There’s certainly no way the characters could stretch and smash, conveying all the various facial expressions in a satisfactory way. It didn’t work with Garfield, it didn’t work with Son of the Mask, and it won’t work here.
Thirdly — and perhaps most importantly — there’s the issue of the cartoon violence. Tom and Jerry have long been a flashpoint in the ongoing debate over violence in kids’ entertainment, to the point where they’ve been parodied on “Itchy and Scratchy” (by way of “The Simpsons”) for the past thirty goddamn years. Tom and Jerry’s cartoon violence schtick is so played out by now, even their parodies are played out. To say nothing of the potential political firestorm the studio would risk simply by making and marketing such a hyper-violent tentpole movie.
Then again, WB is also coming out with Kong vs. Godzilla and a Mortal Kombat reboot later this year, so what do I know?
Anyway, with all the inherent difficulties in making such a film, I never expected a Tom and Jerry film to actually get made. And then this happened.
First off, the animation in Tom & Jerry looks fantastic. No joke, between this and Scoob!, Warner Animation Group has come out with the most jaw-dropping animation I’ve seen in the past several years. Leagues better than anything Disney or Dreamworks has produced in the same time. Dead serious.
Of course there’s CGI involved, but the characters look like 2D animated characters with impeccably polished design. They look more or less exactly like the Tom and Jerry I grew up watching. Plus, they’re mute, they’re expressive, the violent slapstick gimmicks look great… maybe not to the extremes of their classic cartoons, but still, wow.
The trailer sells a premise in which Jerry is an unwelcome guest at a hotel, and Tom is brought in to chase Jerry out. That’s actually a pretty solid premise for a Tom and Jerry movie. Simple, straightforward, focused on the conflict between them, it’s something that could plausibly have been the premise of an old Tom and Jerry short film. (In fact, I’d be surprised if it wasn’t.) Best of all, it doesn’t look like there’s any effort made to inject any kind of heart into the franchise where it’s neither wanted nor needed. (Again, I’m looking directly at the earlier ’92 effort.)
Yes, the film is a live-action/animated hybrid, something that has NEVER EVER WORKED in the past thirty years, no matter how many short-sighted fools try to recapture the magic of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Yet this might plausibly work, as all the humans of the cast could simply pretend that Tom and Jerry are a common cat and mouse. (Muppet logic, basically.)
And what a cast of humans! Chloe Grace Moretz, Michael Pena, Colin Jost, Rob Delaney, Ken Jeong, all proven and reliable talents. And they’re working off a script from Kevin Costello, who previously wrote… um, Brigsby Bear.
That movie about a guy who got abducted as a child and raised in total isolation under the false pretense of global apocalypse, and the premise was played for comedy. Costello co-wrote that, and it’s literally his only other screenwriting credit.
I mean… okay?
Also, the film is under the direction of… Tim Story. Well, okay, his Fantastic Four movies are still radioactive turds, but at least he’s got so many other great comedy films to his name, like… uh… um… shit.
That sinking feeling got a lot deeper as the opening credits rolled, accompanied by cartoon pigeons rapping along to “Can I Kick It?” by A Tribe Called Quest. Just… fucking… WHAT?! If Tom himself hadn’t showed up partway through, stowing away on a train, I’d be worried I had queued up the wrong movie entirely. Or maybe had a stroke.
But no, it turns out that this whole movie has a soundtrack comprised of hip-hop and R&B. Why that choice? What does it have to do with Tom and Jerry? Hell if I know.
Anyway, it’s established that Tom made his way to NYC trying to make it as a musician. If that sounds weird, remember that Tom has a long established history as a pianist. Also, this is New York — it’ll take a lot more than a piano-playing cat to faze the locals.
Jerry, meanwhile, is in the big city searching for a home when he stumbles onto a vacancy at the extravagant Royal Gate Hotel. And then there’s Kayla Forester (Chloe Grace Moretz) a young go-getter who loses her delivery job in a comical run-in with Tom and Jerry.
So far, the Tom and Jerry antics are consistent with what we’d expect from them in the cartoons. Also, it’s nice that all three of our leads have something in common, in that they’re looking for a job or a home, some sense of security and, uh… belonging, and uh…
Sweet Jesus, Chloe, what are you doing?
Look, I love Chloe Grace Moretz. I’ve been a fan of hers for as long as I’ve been running this blog. But this kind of comical desperation just isn’t her bag. It doesn’t help that she’s been in the game too long and her A-list status is a selling point for the film — there’s too much Hollywood sheen on her to sell the “struggling bankrupt unemployed Gen-Z” type. It certainly doesn’t help that the character is too thin and Moretz has got nothing to work with.
Seriously, Kayla applies for a temp job with the hotel, and she does it with a resume that she stole off another applicant. And she pulled this highly unethical move with a transparent facade that should never have worked. And she did this before the filmmakers established any reason for why the character would be this desperate, what she needs the money for, how many other jobs she’s been turned down from, and so on. So right off the bat, fuck this character.
Plus, even at such a young age, Moretz has more than proven herself to be an Oscar-worthy actress who’s played roles in multiple awards-worthy films. What the fuck is she doing here? And why isn’t Hollywood making better use of her?
See, this is the problem that live-action/animated hybrid movies keep running into: It’s not enough to act against cartoon characters, the live-action actors also feel compelled to act as if they’re cartoon characters themselves. That’s not so much a problem when the actors are sharing the screen with the cartoon characters, but when the humans are talking amongst themselves and they still act like heightened buffoons, it’s pathetically annoying and unfunny.
Sure, it’s slightly less of a problem when we’re dealing with actors like Ken Jeong and Rob Delaney, both of whom are well-practiced at mugging for the camera like nobody’s business. Colin Jost and Michael Pena can hold their own at chewing scenery as well. But it’s still grating in large stretches. And again, freaking Chloe Grace Moretz?!
It’s established early and often that the animals are the only reason to watch this movie. In fact, the filmmakers even went the extra mile and made every single animal a cartoon. That’s a lot of effort taken to build the world and remove so many obstacles between the humans and the cartoons. It’s so much easier to sell the notion that the human characters wouldn’t react in any extraordinary way to Tom and Jerry. Kudos.
Oh, and the filmmakers even brought in Spike (that would be the bulldog that Tom has been scared of for decades) and Toots (Tom’s traditional love interest). They’re the pets for Ben and Preeta (Colin Jost and Pallavi Sharda, respectively), whose VIP wedding is being held at the hotel, so the animal characters are introduced in a way that makes sense. The filmmakers quickly and effectively lay the groundwork for so many potential cartoon shenanigans that go so far past Tom and Jerry themselves while still keeping a basis in the source material. Brilliant.
Speaking of which, the bride and groom have a neat little subplot in which Preeta has to learn how to rein in her self-absorbed fiance. The two of them have to learn how to disagree and argue without completely destroying their relationship and everything around them. In theory, this was a fantastic idea of reframing the perpetual Tom/Jerry conflict into a cogent theme. Sure, it’s underdeveloped to the point of ineffectual, but it’s enough to reinforce the point that somebody, somewhere in all this clusterfuck knew what they were doing.
I might also add that while Tom and Jerry are perpetually mute, the filmmakers do cheat a bit. Tom has the shoulder angel/shoulder devil thing to voice his inner moral conflict, with Lil Rey Howery voicing both. However, it bears mentioning that this cheat is well-supported by the source material.
Otherwise, Tom and Jerry’s voices primarily come from William Hanna and Mel Blanc themselves, via archival recordings. Although Tim Story himself provided a few supplemental screams and howls. We’ve also got Bobby Canavale on hand to voice Spike, but he spoke in the original cartoons and it’s not like archival recordings would do the job here, so we’ll let that slide. Bottom line: The classic characters were portrayed respectfully. They don’t say or do much of anything that would’ve been out of place in the original cartoons.
With one exception: The brief musical number in which Tom sings with T-Pain’s voice. I can forgive Tom singing for a musical number — again, there’s precedent for that. But I’m drawing a hard goddamn line at a character singing with audible auto-tune, unaided. To repeat, this is a cat singing with a clearly auto-tuned voice. What the flying fuck is this shit?
I know a lot of filmgoers will want to blame Tom & Jerry on Tim Story, and he certainly didn’t help matters, but this one was doomed long before he ever came on board. This one goes all the way back to whatever idiot studio exec decided that making this a live-action/animated hybrid was a good idea. And let’s be real, any studio exec who would hand this off to the likes of Tim Story and Kevin Costello had no business managing this IP to begin with.
Yes, everything with Tom and Jerry themselves is great. Everything that came directly from the source material is solid. Even the premise itself had the potential to be something fantastic and well in keeping with everything we know and love about the IP. The problem is that it’s padded to the gills with so much extraneous shit about the live-action human characters, centered around an outrageously overqualified Chloe Grace Moretz.
The cartoons are great and the live-action humans suck — it’s like Sonic the Hedgehog all over again. Not recommended.
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