Tom and Jerry miscasts its titular cat and mouse as supporting players, but the movie works when their animated sequences take center stage.
Tom and Jerry is the new resurrection of the old Hanna-Barbara cartoon property whose origins rest in dozens of delightfully violent short films crafted throughout the 40s and 50s. While the property has seen a resurrection every few decades (The Tom & Jerry Kids was a staple of my childhood), none of the new versions have held up to the standards of the original. As a dad, I was excited to see what the franchise’s new direction – a hybrid of animation and live action of a kind with Who Framed Roger Rabbit? – and to see how my kids would react to it.
It would be easy for me to put on my “critic cap” and lampoon Tom and Jerry with a nasty sort of vitriolic glee. There are a great many easy criticisms to levy against the movie, but the simple reality is that director Tim Story (Fantastic Four) did not make a movie for a mid-30s film critic – he made one for kids. That’s not to say bad movies should get a “pass” from critics because they’re meant “for the fans” or whatever nonsense people have to say when promoting a dud. Rather, when I write about the madcap antics of a cartoon cat and mouse, I should keep in mind who the film’s target demo is.
I, of course, watched Tom and Jerry with my kids. We made a little movie night out of it and set up a pillow fort close to the television. My five month old daughter seemed delighted by the colors in the film’s early going and then fell fast asleep. My nearly three year old son was enthralled by the film’s animated sequences, laughing and jovially reacting to the titular duo’s pratfalls.
The film has some wonderfully crafted largely wordless action sequences. Tim Story’s Fantastic Four films are not fondly remembered, but the man had always been able to craft a solid chase. It’s a skill set put to good use here as an animated cat and mouse chase and maim one another. One particularly effective sequence sees Tom attempt to cross a series of electric wires to get to Jerry in a neighboring building. It’s a deft bit of physical comedy, as Tom is repeatedly thwarted by lightning strikes and Jerry’s shenanigans. It makes me long for a Tom and Jerry film with the courage to stick to just the two lead characters.
See here’s the problem – both for me and my son – Tom and Jerry are merely supporting characters in their own movie. It appears the moral the filmmakers took from a franchise that has run for 81 years was that the cat and mouse are not sufficient to carry a wordless story. This was a bad read of the appeal here. My son’s attention waned, as my own did, as soon as the film shows its true focus – a grifter-turned-high end hospitality host played by Chloë Grace Moretz (Shadow in the Cloud). Moretz does her best to elevate the material, but there’s no escaping that her scenes all feel like distractions from the cat and mouse action we desire.
Moretz is surrounded by an awful lot of funny performers, including Michael Pena (Ant-Man, End of Watch), Colin Jost (Saturday Night Live), Ken Jeong (Over the Moon), and Rob Delaney (Catastrophe). Not one has much to do beyond drudge through some outdated jokes, perhaps remnants from old screen plays in the film’s decade long development track. Pallavi Sharda (My Name Is Khan) is given the most to do of the supporting players, and seems a winning presence. Nevertheless all the human antics, focused on a paint drying topic like hotel management, are nothing more than a distraction.
I wish Tim Story and the other filmmakers had the courage to make a largely non-verbal Tom and Jerry movie. You’d think the success of films like WALL*E would prove that audiences are more than willing to accept silent animated characters. And yet, despite all my complaints, the animated sequences really do pop. They’re well-crafted and charmingly executed. My son and I got to laugh together through the goofy antics of a mouse and cat, and, honestly, that was enough.