In what must be one of the least promising opening sequences of recent years, the new Tom & Jerry film – their first in quasi-live action – opens with rapping pigeons, inexplicably hot footing around in thin air. A rat then makes a copyright joke. Give me strength. This one’s over a hundred minutes long.
Things improve, just a little, when messers Tom and Jerry finally appear. Eighty years of squabbling has done little to dampen the appeal of William Hanna and Joseph Barbera’s beloved cat and mouse duo. Here, we find the pair seeking a fresh start in a bustling New York. One that hasn’t existed in well over a year. While Jerry hunts out accommodation, Tom – feigning blindness – launches a busking career in Central Park. As one onlooker puts it: ‘I thought I’d seen it all with the blind, piano playing cat!’ It’s not long before an opportunistic Jerry steals the show and reveals Tom’s fraud: ‘He can see! He’s a fraud! He’s just a regular cat playing in a piano!’ The first real laugh? Treasure it.
Enter Kayla Forester, played by the erstwhile promising Chloë Grace Moretz. She’s the street smart grafter who, oddly, will come to lead the film. When Kayla successfully blags a job as wedding planner in the highfaluting Royal Gate Hotel, Jerry’s decision to simultaneously take up residence kicks off shenanigans of the sort that could only occur in the presence of cartoon animals and scheming caricatures with names like Terence Mendoza. Michael Peña is Mendoza, withRob Delaney and Ken Jeong cashing cheques as hotelier Henry Dubros and Chef Jackie respectively. Saturday Night Live star Colin Jost, meanwhile, is truly dire in the role of a wooden groom. Pallavi Sharda is vastly superior as his bride but no one shines here. All appear to have been over-egged to the point of severe gurning, in some dimwitted faith that the maxim ‘bigger always means better’ actually holds up.
A weary script by Kevin Costello plods along like a spruced up throwback to the nineties – all dated set ups and would-be ironic gags about gender discrimination – but its Tim Story’s rote direction that really robs the film of Hanna Barbera’s penchant for anarchic fun. Things only ever come alive when Tom and Jerry actually clash and there’s just not enough of it. In essence, it’s as though a single – and genuinely very funny – Tom and Jerry short was created for the film and then spliced thinly across an hour and a half of archival dross. No wonder this one spent a decade in development hell.
More successful here would be the production’s decision to present not only Tom and Jerry as animated but all animals within the world in which they exist. It’s a visual approach that recalls Robert Zemeckis’ Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and one that continues to pay off. Watch out for the exhibits Tom and Jerry pass in the Natural History Museum – also animated – and the dead fish hanging in the poisonnier. Them too. Why some can speak and others can’t, the stuffed and deceased notwithstanding, remains a mystery. That’s okay. The animated characters certainly raise heartier chuckles than the live ones. Perhaps that’s why the over acting of the latter group clangs so. Lines like: ‘If a picture of this mouse is tweeted to the InstaBookFace, or the Ticky Tock, we will be ruined!’ do them no favours, it must be said.
Whether Tom & Jerry can appeal to a younger generation remains to be seen. You’d have to ask a seven year old. Early global success on VOD services suggests it might well. For the fusty critic, films like this do little more than remind us that Covid-19 has not simply stolen cinematic magic from the big screen but saved it from real stinkers.