‘Tom and Jerry’ is listless and unfunny

Images courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.

3/10 Who was Tom and Jerry for?

Manhattan- In a world of cartoon animals, an alley cat named Tom scratches out a living as a street pianist, but is routinely assaulted, robbed and otherwise tormented by a mouse called Jerry. Jerry, who is between homes, carves out a residence on the 10th floor of the Royal Gate Hotel, and Tom, seeking revenge, follows.

At the same time, Kayla (Chloë Grace Moretz), a gig worker trying to make it in the city who’s between jobs and possibly also between homes, bluffs her way onto the staff of the Royal Gate over the suspicions of her new boss, Terrence (Michael Peña). On the eve of a high-profile wedding, Terrence assigns her to discreetly find the mouse that seems to have taken up residence at the hotel.

It takes about 20 minutes for it to become clear how the human plot will intersect with Tom and Jerry. That’s a perfectly acceptable amount of time for the plot to really get rolling, it just feels longer when you keep pausing to get more food.

The principal complaint about Tom and Jerry rings true – Tom and Jerry are barely present. The whole movie contains only three or four sequences of classic antics, and only one moment that sticks out as particularly funny.

The movie distinctly reminds me of those Dr. Seuss adaptations from the turn of the millennium, with a bare-bones plot and subplot propped up by wacky hijinks that are only tangentially related to them. In Tom and Jerry, though, with no book to base things on, filmmakers have built a new plot out of whole cloth just to distract viewers from with the unrelated cartoon antics. We could be more generous and look at this like a Muppet movie, but that wouldn’t work because the Muppets always interact with the main plot much more directly than Tom and Jerry do in this film.

“Look Dad, that blind cat’s playing the piano!” ”There’s a lot of weird stuff in this city, you just gotta keep walking.”

There’s some pleasure to be had in Tom and Jerry’s small blunders, such as when Kayla says she’s from “a small town in Penn State,” or when Terrence offers wedding guests a list of the most prestigious dog parks in New York City. Watching Peña derisively yell “You must be one of those …millennials!” as if he’s only just heard the term and has no idea what it means, at Moretz, who was born in 1997 and is not a millennial, is a nice, trippy moment.

Tom and Jerry is constantly drifting toward interesting concepts, such as an early indication that Kayla sees animals as the cartoons they are in-camera while everyone else sees them as simple animals, but they quickly vanish. The closest thing to a coherent thought the movie has is its view of Tom’s and Jerry’s rivalry as destructive, particularly now that they’re drawn into a real world where things break and aren’t replaced the next episode – the animals are pointedly subject to cartoon physics, but the real-world elements stay destroyed.

Tom and Jerry was initially supposed to be a fully live-action movie, or at least more live-action than it ended up being – it was green-lit in the wake of 2007’s Alvin and the Chipmunks, and presumably would take the same animation style as that series. As the project languished in development hell well past that style’s shelf-life, plans shifted to a fully animated feature, but then back to partial animation when director Tim Story finally got the project’s wheels turning.

What they ended up doing was drawing the animal characters in with CGI over an in-camera reference and then giving them a 2D finish in line with the original cartoon, creating a strange effect that’s not quite 3D and not quite 2D. The real problem is how smooth it is – there’s no motion blur in the animated elements at all. It looks like they were created as video clips and layered onto video files instead of onto individual frames, so while real elements have the natural blur that comes with film projection, animated elements glide eerily across the screen a half-step too slow and with uncomfortable precision, always moving directly and smoothly from one peak to the next. It gets deeper into the uncanny valley the closer you look at it.

The masterwork of this type of mixed media is obviously 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which Tom and Jerry would never have held a candle to.

This is probably just a manifestation of my own wanderlust, but what irritates me the most about Tom and Jerry is there’s so much time dedicated to romancing Manhattan when this movie is set in a fictional hotel and shot on an English soundstage. They even shot some exterior scenes in London, apparently only sending a helicopter unit to New York for some aerial shots and filming one scene, in which none of the principal actors were present, in Central Park.

What’s clearly happened here is someone heard the term “imposter syndrome” and thought it meant literally stealing another person’s resume to get a job, and so we end up with this movie that appeals to millennials by having a character played by an actress too young to be one of us taking one of our most common and distinctive anxieties and turning it into simple fraud.

The Royal Gate is sloppily drawn over a real building – one shot makes its location explicit on 73rd and Central Park West, where the Langham and the Dakota apartment complexes are in reality. In one extended sequence, Terrence waxes poetic about the hotel’s grand history and cultural stature, and both that history and its cartoonish facade are clearly based on the Waldorf Astoria. Why are we going over this fictionalized history when it doesn’t even differ from the real one? Truth is always cooler than fiction. Why are we padding the runtime with what looks like stock footage of a city they didn’t bother to visit?

Who was Tom and Jerry for? Was it for fans of cartoons that first aired more than 80 years ago? Hollywood doesn’t exactly churn out movies aimed at people in their 60s at the very youngest, and even if this was for them, the distinct lack of the antics they loved will be an issue. Is it for younger generations who are meant to empathize with Kayla? That angle is a disaster, given how little the filmmakers seem to understand about our anxieties and difficulties.

As an actual millennial born in 1992, Tom and Jerry has always seemed to me like a tame version of Itchy and Scratchy, the show-within-a-show on The Simpsons. Obviously that’s an inverse of the real relationship, Itchy and Scratchy was an edgier satire of Tom and Jerry pointing out how violent and mean-spirited the cartoon really is. Because of the order in which I was exposed to the media, that feels like the default to me, and watching Tom and Jerry, all I want to do is open another tab and reset myself with some Itchy and Scratchy clips.

By the end of the movie, I’m so tuned out I barely want to do even that.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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