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‘Tom and Jerry’ Review: A bare minimum, barely reached

Everything you expect to be here is here, and everything you expect not to be here is here as well.
Credit: Warner Bros.

In “Tom and Jerry” – a new hybrid animation/live-action movie based off the beloved property in which, as you no doubt know, dear reader, a cat and mouse do unto each other vicious bodily harm with the various objects in their immediate vicinity – a celebrity(human) couple examines their relationship, a (human) Chloë Grace Moretz tries to nail down a job in the Big Apple and a (human) Michael Peña stands in her way. The sight of humans hasn’t been this unwarranted since whenever was the last time someone wandered within six feet of you without a mask.

The 2021 revival from Warner Bros. – hitting HBO Max this weekend, as well as arriving in some theaters – is a strange and self-defeating movie, one that begins by flexing its pop culture awareness muscles before going on to show a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes Tom and Jerry so enduring and sadistically endearing. Oh, rest assured, the two will take their swings at each other; among the many things that come down on Tom’s head over the course of these 100 or so minutes are bolts of lightning, bowling balls and garage doors. But director Tim Story, working off a script from Kevin Costello, largely sticks Tom and Jerry on the sidelines of “Tom and Jerry”—and does so in the service of a plot that has all the emotional breadth of a Super Bowl commercial.

The particulars (and the generals, really) of that plot involve Moretz’s Kayla, an implied grifter who cons her way into a temporary position at a luxurious hotel—the kind of place loaded with the very fragile, very breakable sorts of objects that ostensibly turns it into a haven for Tom and Jerry-caliber hijinks. Which is why, confoundingly, the hotel is instead playing host to a looming wedding between undefined A-listers Preeta (Pallavi Sharda) and Ben (Colin Jost), its employees fussing over every little detail to maintain their reputation. Right on cue, our titular frenemies arrive at the place, bringing their knack for spontaneous destructive mischief along. It’ll be up to Kayla to sort them straight (an unenviable position to be in), enlisting Tom to capture Jerry while she works to turn the temporary wedding gig into a full-time job.

Cue the mayhem, which is delightful...when it isn’t playing second-fiddle to a story with so many human-centered narrative threads that Tom and Jerry feel more like cameos than the main show. It’s a bit like if the zany main arcs of “The Lego Movie” instead functioned as momentary escape from the languid story of a human son and his preoccupied dad. That film turned self-awareness into its best asset; “Tom and Jerry” is sorely lacking it. You’ll know exactly what kind of humor you’re in for as animated birds begin rapping through the fourth wall in the opening credits.

I’m no statistician, but “Tom and Jerry” must represent one of the only times in movie history when transferring a franchise to New York City made it less exciting. That should not be mistaken to read as bringing everyone’s favorite sadistic cat and mouse into the live-action space isn’t exciting; watching their 2-D selves chase, target, scowl at each other while in 3-D environments is a delight, and Warner Bros. is at least to be commended for avoiding a “Sonic”-level fiasco by refusing to even consider making Tom and Jerry into terrifying lifelike avatars of their iconic physical selves. The screenplay, on the other hand, tries too hard to shape the story where it should be condensed while relegating the main attraction into a few standout sequences; I can appreciate (even welcome!) attempts at subversion when modernizing such a familiar bit of IP, but what Story and Costello are doing here amounts to ransoming audience nostalgia for a dimension of sincerity that no one is searching for in a “Tom and Jerry” tale. The jokes, meanwhile, feel like they were grabbed and un-crumpled from the discard pile at a Warner Bros. board room.

Credit: Warner Bros.

How did Tom and Jerry even get to New York? Beats me, but it’s a question I kept asking and increasingly considered more intriguing narrative fodder every time “Tom and Jerry” insisted on sketching out a friendship between Kayla and Preeta, social spheres be damned. In fact, Moretz – still bouncing between genres in her effort to fully capitalize off her breakout success in “Kick-Ass” – is bringing a suitable energy to her role here, communicating with animated characters with a believable blend of circumstantial incredulity and low-key manic desperation. The fact that “Tom and Jerry” nonetheless slows to a crawl when she (or Preeta, or Ben, or Peña’s saboteur Terrence) is the focal point is the strongest evidence that she, nor any of her human companions, should never have been.

“Tom and Jerry” operates by funny rules. Unlike last year’s “Sonic,” this is a movie in which commercial property has comfortably (and eerily) assimilated into real-world settings. Tom and Jerry aren’t the only animated animals in this New York, though they are the ones who remain dialogue-less, save for one moment when Tom taps into his inner crooner in a moment of blooming feline romance. The animals’ human counterparts will look on in horror more than once as their inner beasts turn the hotel into a gold-and-glass wasteland, and it’s admittedly more than a little amusing to consider these boisterous sequences as unintentional metaphor for corporate survival of the fittest—in which this particular franchise’s true essence rears its head. Funnier than anything that happens in the movie is realizing that the very nature of fiendish Tom and rascally Jerry is both too narrow for Hollywood studio decision-making and too broad to substantively encapsulate in 100 minutes.

It’s almost as if not everything should be turned into a movie just because it can.

"Tom and Jerry" is rated PG for cartoon violence, rude humor and brief language. It's now streaming on HBO Max, and is in some theaters. 

Starring: Chloë Grace Moretz, Michael Peña, Colin Jost, Pallavi Sharda

Directed by Tim Story

2021

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