In some ways doing a Tom & Jerry movie in 2021 is something of a no-brainer. It’s a solid and well-loved brand that’s been out of the limelight for a while, so expectations are relatively low, it has a built-in formula – foolish cat chases clever mouse, hilarity ensues (yes, I have just Mousesplained Tom & Jerry, deal with it) – and comes with a brand of slapstick humour that works for all ages.
On the other hand, rebooting the franchise can be seen as a massive risk; half of the audience treasure these characters as part of their childhood and will skewer you for messing with them, the other (arguably more important) might not have even heard of them. Occasional revivals for the duo, who date back to 1940, have been patchy and haphazard. An attempt at the big screen in 1993, also called Tom & Jerry: The Movie, was a massive flop, and subsequent straight-to-video films have mostly gone under the radar. Finally, 2D animation is rarely done on a movie scale these days, and risks looking out of date and weird to a generation raised on Pixar and Despicable Me!, while rendering the characters in more common digimation, or even expensive Lion King-style photo-real CGI risks losing something of their spirit.
Which brings us to Tom & Jerry: The Movie, Tim Story’s live-action/animated mash up, which in another year would be vying for the Easter box office crown reserved for kids films not deemed good enough to release at Christmas. It works, just about. The decision to blend a traditional hand-animated style with live-action (ala Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, a touchstone it aims for but never quite reaches – but then, what does?) serves the characters pretty well, and means the full on, anarchic, gleefully, messily, violent slapstick of the original cartoons is done admirable justice. It also means – praise be – our titular duo stay mute, as nature intended, and human characters get to do the heavy story lifting.
Chloë Grace Moretz is likeable as the tough-cookie twenty-something who scams a job in a posh Manhattan Hotel that, wouldn’t you know it, has suddenly developed a familiar-looking mouse problem. Michael Peña plays her put-upon boss, the closest thing we get here to an antagonist, while Rob Delaney steals all of his scenes as the well-meaning hotel manager with all the best lines. There’s a plot, light as it is, involving a New York socialite (Colin Jost) marrying an Indian heiress (Pallavi Sharda), but it’s not really important.
When it works it’s because it lets Tom and Jerry be, well, Tom & Jerry – Cat hunts mouse; Mouse outsmarts cat; Cat gets hit in the head with a plank, electrocuted, falls 20 stories, has a bowling ball dropped on his fingers, runs into walls, is brutalised by a dog and is generally pulverised in a series of excruciating ways. All of them funny. There’s proper belly laughs scattered throughout the film, all from the cartoon antics. The best thing you can say about Story’s movie is that it gets Tom & Jerry right.
Outside of the cat-and-mouse-violence-party it fairs less well. A few of the human gags do land (mostly Delaney’s, who can lever the lamest duck off the page and spin it into gold) and the visual references to classic movies aimed firmly over the heads of watching children (Batman, The Matrix, Silence of the Lambs) are, well, fine. The plot is simple enough for the average five-year-old to enjoy, though not quite smart enough for their older siblings, and wafer-thin for anyone over twelve. Fortunately there’s always a bit where Tom gets hit in the face with an iron, and that’s a gag we can all enjoy. “Ya know, I think I might have just pulled this off”, says Moretz’s Kayla at one point. She’s more or less right.