Cartoon icons and embittered enemies Tom Cat and Jerry Mouse have come a long way from their feature film debut: a live action-animation hybrid sequence in the MGM musical Anchors Aweigh (1945). That doesn’t necessarily mean that their shtick has changed much. Nearly eight decades later, the pair have swapped male leads Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra for Michael Peña and Rob Delaney, leading lady Kathryn Grayson for Chloë Grace Moretz, and director George Sidney for Tim Story. Updated human roster aside, they’re still dabbling in the same hybrid format that they employed in the mid-’40s (and, of course, they’re still at each other’s throats).
This 2021 Tom and Jerry update — simply and aptly titled Tom & Jerry — is unmistakably contemporary, riddled with modern references to everything from John Legend to Joker (2019). However, it’s also strangely nostalgic, hinging on a formal amalgam that nearly harkens back to the origins of cinema itself. It’s a very strange thing, to be sure, but it’s not the disaster one might assume a movie prominently featuring Colin Jost would be. This is largely due to the sheer watchability of an animated cat and mouse brutalizing each other in and around a ritzy New York City hotel.
At the start, the infamous Hanna-Barbera duo are separated from one another for some unknown reason. Don’t wait on an explanation for their brief estrangement, because it never comes and it won’t matter — the title promises a pairing, and it doesn’t take long to deliver on it. Jerry searches through the inner workings of the city on his quest for a home, while Tom grifts New Yorkers by posing as a blind piano player with hopes of one day making it big as a musician. When their diametrically opposed lives cross paths in the park, the chase is on (again). After some obligatory cartoon violence, Jerry eventually finds refuge in a glamorous hotel, and Tom tries his hardest to get in.
Meanwhile, a job-hopping young woman named Kayla (Moretz) finagles her way into a temp position at the hotel by stealing a promising candidate’s résumé and passing it off as her own. After impressing the manager, Mr. Dubros (Delaney), and catching the ire of right-hand man Terence (Peña), the hapless Kayla is tasked with prepping the building for the wedding of a high-profile celebrity couple (Jost and Pallavi Sharda). The latter are simultaneously a riff on New York socialites and a convenient way to rope in minor characters Spike and Toodles Galore, who appear as the couple’s pets. Kayla’s first order of business: rid the hotel of the mouse spotted in the kitchen by Chef Jackie (Ken Jeong). Who better for this gig than the cat that was just caught red-handed attempting to break into the hotel?
The whole “animated characters in the real world” gimmick has been utilized often in recent decades, for better — see Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) and Paddington (2014) — and for worse — see (or, rather, don’t see) Alvin and the Chipmunks (2007), Yogi Bear (2010), and The Smurfs (2011). Tom & Jerry splits the difference between these immense highs and dismal lows of the subgenre, flipping back and forth from genuinely lively to somewhat comatose throughout its 101-minute runtime. This has a lot to do with the human angle, which seriously pales in comparison to the 80-plus years of built-in chemistry Tom and Jerry have fostered since their inception in 1940.
It boils down to this: No actor on Earth could save this script. Michael Peña and Rob Delaney, although frequently funny in practically everything they do, have been placed in parts that deprive them of the freedom to bring their own style to the table. The same goes for Chloë Grace Moretz, who has shown promise in her dramatic roles as of late but is unable to demonstrate any of it here. This is to be expected, though — it’s just not strong material, being light on both interesting characters and inspired gags. This is surprising, to say the least, because writer Kevin Costello’s only other major screenplay, Brigsby Bear (2017), is quite the opposite. Still, it’s a blessing that Costello didn’t resort to a talking cat and mouse as Warner Bros. did in Tom and Jerry: The Movie (1992). The mind reels.
Speaking of voices, one of the most pleasant touches in the film is the recycling of Mel Blanc and William Hanna’s original archival sounds for Tom and Jerry’s yelps, squeaks, chuckles, and various sound effects. In the wake of the disappointment that came with recasting the main Scooby-Doo voice cast with name-brand actors for Scoob! (2020), the other recent attempt at giving Hanna-Barbera the franchise treatment, it’s wise of Warner Bros. to stick to what they know and give a basic level of respect to the central premise of these characters.
Much like those early on-screen appearances in Anchors Aweigh and Dangerous When Wet (1953), Tom & Jerry ends up being less about the animated characters and more about the people. It’s not uncommon for long stretches to go by without any sight of the cat and mouse, almost as if the two are only there to punctuate the act breaks. As such, the sequences that give the audience the thing they came to see — cartoon carnage — are undeniably the standouts here. The target demographic — i.e., children under the age of, say, 10 — will have few issues with this feature-length Saturday-morning diversion, but why watch Tom & Jerry on HBO Max when there’s already a trove of classic (and, for what it’s worth, far superior) Tom and Jerry cartoons on the streamer? Like choosing to watch The Simpsons Movie (2007) over peak episodes of The Simpsons (1989- ) on Disney+, Tom & Jerry presents a well-intentioned but ultimately unsatisfactory option.
Tom and Jerry is now available to stream from HBO Max.