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"Tom & Jerry" (2021): A Passable yet Improved Feat of the Hanna-Barbera Duo

Alex is a School of Visual Arts graduate with a passion for media, writing and animation. He writes reviews for film, television and games.

"Tom & Jerry (2021 film)" Movie Poster

"Tom & Jerry (2021 film)" Movie Poster

Intro

What has to be said before about Tom & Jerry? In 1940, animators William Hanna and Joseph Barbera created an animated short series about a cat and mouse outwitting each other. For decades, these characters were well beloved for the art of cartoon slapstick and an example of the term "action speaks louder than words." While they had success during the Golden Age, transitioning to other media has been challenging, especially during the 1990s and 2000s. Television shows were no problem, with a couple of exceptions. As for film, it was quite a difficult journey. In 1992, Miramax released an animated feature based on the iconic duo.

For those that are familiar with my thoughts on that movie, there are no words repeating. For those that are new, here is the CliffNotes version: The movie had a potentially interesting concept, decent animation, and entertaining voice work. Unfortunately, it was easily regarded as a forgettable flop for its poor execution, the titular characters talking too much and becoming less focused, cliched side characters, and needless musical numbers that desperately capitalized on what Disney was doing at the time.

Afterwards, Warner Bros. made many direct-to-video animated Tom & Jerry movies for a while. Many of them have ranged from average to decent to down right embarrassing. Generally speaking, the latter applies to crossover films in the 2010s, including the infamous Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory film. In fact, it received so much backlash that Warner Bros. held back on producing more movies.

Since 2009, it was announced that a new Tom & Jerry feature film was in the works and the medium would be a live-action/animated hybrid. Of course, the community became very skeptical and worried that the project would fall victim of every other live-action/animated project at the time. Little did they know, the project itself went through development hell and constant changes. It changed from an live-action/animated hybrid to a fully computer-animated film before officially going back to square one. Even so, the public was still doubtful and uncertain.

Suddenly, once the movie unveiled itself, audiences became intrigued where not only Tom and Jerry themselves look and move as 2-D animations, but the movie itself was a return to the glory days of Roger Rabbit and Space Jam. As an added bonus, the new Space Jam movie will be returning to its hand-drawn roots as well, rather than going full CGI. So with the hype being built, did the cat and mouse deserve a second chance on the big screen after a long absence?

When Jerry decides to live at a hotel, Tom and the newly-employed Kayla (Chloë Grace Moretz) try to get rid of him before an important wedding event occurs.

Kayla (Chloë Grace Moretz) with Tom & Jerry

Kayla (Chloë Grace Moretz) with Tom & Jerry

Source Material Over Generic Story and Debatable Direction

Upon hearing a synopsis like that, it is quite obvious that the story itself sounds cliched and predictable, especially with the setting taking place at a hotel in New York. Even a moviegoer with a cynical and/or pretentious mindset (no offense) would easily compare this plot to two other family movies. The first is the 1996 family comedy bomb Dunston Checks In. It was about an orangutan causing mischief in a hotel while an upcoming event is occurring at the same time. As obscure as that movie is, it conceptually sounds similar, but not entirely. The second film, ironically enough, is the first Tom & Jerry movie where the story spends its time on the human characters rather than the titular characters. Actually, to the movie's credit, it knows that the character-driven side plots involving Kayla proving herself worthy or Ben and Preeta handling their wedding aren't that intrusive or prolonged as they sound. There's even a montage scene where Tom & Jerry learn to get along, which is like the first film but handled much better.

The important factor to know when watching Tom & Jerry in general is that story was never the selling point. It was basically the focus on the characters themselves and the slapstick. The major contribution that the settings have is the creativity around that environment to convey the jokes and cartoon violence. That is exactly what made this installment an improvement.

If one would calculate how much time the movie would focus on the cat and mouse duo, it would be about five minutes periodically. Sure, the movie would cut back to the human characters and the editing admittedly rushes each scene to hold back from their potential, which will be discussed later. But again, to its credit, it keeps the scenes short and simple enough and would return what audiences really wanted to see.

Another setback for the movie is its double-edged sword direction. The movie is directed by Tim Story whose works are considered hit and miss. Since he is a fan of Tom & Jerry, Tim did deliver what fans would expect. There was evidential care put into the visuals and slapstick humor that definitely pays tribute to the classic cartoons, along with a couple of callbacks, cameos and references here and there. On the other hand, there are moments where the movie would remind its audiences that is trendy with modern technology and lowbrow humor just like another movies based on cartoons the past decade. There's even a R&B and hip-hop soundtrack throughout the movie. As a matter of fact, the movie literally begins with pigeons rapping. That said information alone would give a first impression to make anyone cringe and turn away from this movie being treated as "soulless". However, when you really think about it, the classic Tom & Jerry weren't completely timeless as they were back in the day. Besides the unmentionable depictions of certain characters, there were shorts that adapted to trends that were new at the time, such as The Zoot Cat where Tom dressed and acted as a flashy, slang-talking, jiving "cool cat". To get my point across, Tim wanted to give the NYC setting an urban feel for the iconic characters to adapt in, like the animated sitcom The Looney Tunes Show. If that type of direction isn't your cup of tea, that is fine. The story itself won't get anyone invested in, but when Tom and Jerry are on screen, it will leave some satisfaction in the end.

Passionate 2-D Looking 3-D Animation

Before continuing, most were baffled and confused by the idea of the movie being a live-action/animated hybrid rather than fully animated. Well, for those who have a history with the franchise, this is technically speaking NOT the first time this happened. It is a safe assumption that the concept is more like a homage to the MGM movies where Tom & Jerry have guest appeared in certain scenes. The most famous example is the fantasy scene Anchors Aweigh where Gene Kelly taught an unhappy king (played by a talking Jerry Mouse) how to dance. True, the movie would've taken the full animated route for consistency. Then again, with the budget and development issues it went through, it was a risky but refreshing move at the same time.

The main highlight of the movie is the visual effects and animation. Not only the movie captures the spirit of Tom & Jerry but the look of it as well. The character designs remain very faithful to the Hanna-Barbera cartoons where it not only applies to the existing characters but every single animal in the entire movie: dogs, cats, birds, even fish, bugs and dinosaur bones! Seeing cartoon creatures interacting with humans in a live-action setting helps establish its own world like in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

Despite the characters looking 2-D, the characters models are actually 3-D. How is that possible? The visual effects were provided at Framestore where the animators cleverly applied a vintage 2D texture finish on the 3-D models. Some would compare this type of technique to the Rocky & Bullwinkle film. Then, they used rigging, lighting and rendering techniques to convey the illusion of hand-drawn animation. The camera work is also exhilarating where it connects to the comedic timing and animation. Sure, there are times with certain camera angles where the models would look off. If the movie had a bigger budget, the animation quality would've been more polished. But, for the materials that were given, there was a true sense of passion and effort given to the animation. The live-action portions of New York City is also pretty nice to look at. The Royal Gate Hotel does have that class and elegant feel to it. The innovative visuals alone give this hybrid a visual identity to remember.

Jerry startling Preeta (Pallavi Sharda) and her cat Toots

Jerry startling Preeta (Pallavi Sharda) and her cat Toots

Quality Over Quantity of Characters

Since this is a feature length movie, it is hard to imagine how Tom & Jerry would fill an entire running time rather than a few minute cartoon. Like the first film, there are new human characters. The major difference is that this time, the focus is more on Tom & Jerry rather than the humans themselves. Starting with the titular duo, Tom is a stray con artist cat with a dream of playing piano and Jerry is an innocent mouse desperately looking for a home. Whenever they cross paths, they would chase and outfox each other while later learning to become friends in order to achieve their goals. As they continue to remain silent, it is also noteworthy that Frank Welker did vocals for the two while archive recordings of William Hanna, Mel Blanc and June Foray from the classic cartoons were used to help authenticate the vintage and nostalgic feeling. Occasionally, we also get to see Tom's shoulder angel and devil where the latter acts more devilish than he looks. Other Tom & Jerry characters like Spike the Bulldog and Butch the Alley Cat make their cinematic debuts as well. Spike is Ben's tough yet loyal dog whom dislikes Tom while Butch is the bullying gangster alongside his cat crew Meathead, Lightning, Ash, and Topsy. Cameos include Goldie the Goldfish, Toots the Cat and of course, Droopy.

As for the human characters, they are honestly not that bad...but not great either. Our human protagonist is Kayla. She is a smart aleck young woman struggling to succeed on what she does best at her new job. Cameron is the hotel bartender that befriends Kayla, Mr. Dubros is the mild-mannered hotel manager, Joy is the eccentric bellhop, and Jackie is the short-tempered chef.

On the wedding side of the story, Ben and Preeta are the typical loving yet troubled couple. As one-note as they are, the performances by Colin Jost and Pallavi Sharda do get a laugh now and then.

The best human character among the cast is easily Terence, the hotel deputy manager. Not just for the being the comedy straight-person, but Michael Peña delivers an energetic performance whenever he gets mad or devises a scheme.

It is quite understandable that each character has a quirk to comedically differentiate from another. However, due to the rushed editing and cliched writing, the characters fell back from their full potential into being memorable. Fairly enough, the actors did a decent job on what the script offered and most of them have the credentials to be funny. The humans will not leave much of an impression, but Tom & Jerry themselves will make sure you will never forget.

Conclusion

Overall, Tom & Jerry is an improved standalone movie with mixed results. The movie will entertain its audiences with thoughtful animation, some respect to the source material and laughs from either the slapstick or couple characters. Then again, audiences would see it as another lazy cash-grab adaptation with a recycled plot, iffy direction and over simplistic characters. This is highly recommended for families and those that adore Tom & Jerry. To date this review, it is also currently available to watch on HBO Max until March 28. For those are expecting a very faithful adaptation, you will get some enjoyment out of it. If not, stick to the original cartoons. It may not be the 1992 film, but it's a step closer to the right direction.

Comments

Pat Mills from East Chicago, Indiana on February 28, 2021:

I don't know why Warner Brothers keeps doing these hybrid movies. Back in the early days, when celebrities were a part of an animated short, they were animated too. The performers who were in both Space Jam and Looney Toons: Back In Action liked working with Bugs Bunny et al, but I would rather see a full commitment to the animation process. Those old shorts endure because of the humor and their admiration of the people they featured in the animation. I'm glad you enjoyed parts of the new Tom & Jerry, but I will wait on seeing this one because I didn't even like the trailers for it.

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