Big-screen adaptations of iconic movie characters are a risky business. Doing justice to characters that generations of audiences know and love is tricky. There are far more misses than there are hits. Successes like The Peanuts Movie are few and far between. Tom and Jerry is a miss.
Tom Cat and Jerry Mouse are beloved characters. They have been trying to outsmart each other since 1940. Tom is indignant at his defeat at the paws of a rodent, and he redoubles his efforts time and again to defeat Jerry. The mouse likes creature comforts and usually just wants to be left in peace, but unfortunately Tom usually gets in his way. Jerry will defend his cozy abode at all costs. The new Tom and Jerry movie premiering in theaters and currently available on HBO Max is no exception.
First, a little history
Many of us grew up watching Tom and Jerry cartoons, but these shorts originally weren’t intended for children. They were part of an entire program at the movies. They preceded the feature film, which was the main event, but soon became attractions in their own right. Later, TV networks needed content for kids, especially on Saturday mornings, and animated shorts fit the bill.
It’s important to note that Tom and Jerry shorts often featured notorious, blatantly racist depictions. These are no longer televised but definitely merit further discussion, especially if you grew up watching them. A quick online search reveals a number of clips that are cringeworthy. It’s hard to believe society thought that was funny. Looney Toons had the same problem, though I’ve always felt that Tom and Jerry used racist tropes and stereotypes more consistently. We are talking black face, mammies and other egregious stereotypes.
Tom and Jerry endures
In spite of its problematic history, Tom and Jerry remain tremendously popular. The cat-and-mouse shenanigans usually end catastrophically for Tom. Time and again Jerry outsmarts him. The punchline is that Tom gets horribly mangled, in a silly slapstick way of course. Thankfully he has thousands of lives.
It really is hilarious, in the same way that The Three Stooges and Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner are hilarious. It’s a type of physical comedy that endures. The violence ultimately doesn’t harm the characters who are the butt of the joke. Of course, the sanitized cartoons are more acceptable by today’s standards, but this should by no means be the end of the conversation about race in animation.
Does the update work?
Should you splurge on an HBO Max membership to see Tom and Jerry, or venture to the theater with the kids if you have the option?
The setting is great, the Big Apple in all its glory, pre-pandemic of course. Jerry makes himself at home in a high-end hotel. This is a big problem for management, because the hotel is about to play host to the celebrity wedding of the moment for internet famous Ben (Collin Jost) and Preeta (Pallavi Sharda).
Enter Kayla (Chloe Grace Moretz), a lovely millennial who job hops and fakes her way into a job as an event planner at the hotel. Tom is not far behind. Ready to seek vengeance on his mortal enemy Jerry, Kayla helps Tom join the hotel staff as head mouser, with a cute little hat and everything.
I really wanted to enjoy Tom and Jerry, but I had the sinking feeling as I watched that the filmmakers missed the mark somehow. Here’s the main problem, as my friends at Common Sense Media pointed out: Tom and Jerry aren’t the main characters. Their adventures are relegated to a subplot. The movie should really be called Kayla and Friends (Who Help Her Figure Out Her Self-Worth). The chaos of the cat-and-mouse scenes comes off as filler, unfortunately.
It’s hard to adapt a routine that’s better suited to a short film into a feature-length story. But I can’t help but feel that Tom, with his righteous anger and ingenuity, and Jerry, with his knowing smile and one-upsmanship, got cheated out of the spotlight.
If you’ve been locked down for the last year and can’t wait for a family outing, seeing Tom and Jerry at the theater goes a long way toward making you feel like it’s a normal afternoon. But I wouldn’t sign up for HBO Max for this alone.