As hypothesized by fellow Paste writer Kenneth Lowe earlier this week, it appears that children’s media can’t handle violence like it used to. The nostalgic sadism of Tom and Jerry cartoons of yore is absent almost entirely from director Tim Story’s 2021 reboot; the film instead focuses on repairing the acrimonious relationship between the cartoon cat and mouse duo.
A hybrid of 3D animation and live action, Tom and Jerry transplants the central characters onto the streets of Manhattan, where Jerry searches in vain for a lavish mouse-sized abode while Tom busks with a keyboard in Central Park, masquerading as blind to pull on tourists’ heartstrings. As fate allows, the two quickly cross paths, and the ensuing chaos accidentally causes Kayla (Chloë Grace Moretz) to lose her job. After feigning her way into a new gig at the Royal Gate Hotel, Kayla is quickly ushered into her first task ahead of a big celebrity wedding taking place that weekend: Catch and kill a witty mouse who has recently made the premises his new home. She recruits Tom to aid in her mission, and the pandemonium that follows threatens to ruin the wedding of celebrity couple Ben (Colin Jost) and Preeta (Pallavi Sharda) as well as the career of Kayla’s overbearing manager Terrence (Michael Peña).
While the movie is often adorable and overwhelmingly wholesome, it lacks the true essence of Tom and Jerry cartoons: Goofy, slapstick barbarity perpetually enacted between the two characters. Sure, Tom still suffers a plethora of abuse from Jerry, but in this case it usually doesn’t escalate beyond falling from high-rises or getting his paws slammed by windows and car doors. The brilliance of Tom and Jerry cartoons, for better or worse, stems from the uncanny cruelty that forever remains unmitigated between the two (parodied to an equally comedic extent in The Simpsons’ Itchy & Scratchy Show and in hilarious viral voiceovers). To be fair, it does kind of make sense for the franchise to distance itself from over-the-top portrayals of brutality in the 21st century, particularly following the revelation that former al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden was quite fond of the classic cartoon, a fact made public by the CIA in 2017 when 138 episodes of the show were revealed to be among the digital files seized during the raid that killed him (then again, so was “Charlie Bit My Finger”).
The mash-up style of animation and live action feels less assured than apparent predecessors Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Space Jam, however, Tom and Jerry certainly surpasses some more recent contemporaries like 2009’s Alvin and the Chipmunks. Although the 3D animation loses some of the charm inherent in previous instances of Tom and Jerry crossing over with famous stars—such as the glorious 2D animation present in Gene Kelly’s enchanting dance with a royal Jerry in Anchors Aweigh (1945) or Esther Williams’ synchronized swim with the pair in Dangerous When Wet (1953)—it redeems itself by remaining closely tethered to the source material in other inventive ways. The duo remain silent, relegated to pantomime which is competently deciphered by an endearingly goofy Moretz.
Tom and Jerry’s execution is largely stifled by an overreliance on the live-action actors as opposed to stretching the limits of the animated dimension. Whenever the movie pivots to the romance of the celebrity wedding or perils within Kayla’s vague personal life, it’s hard not to think, “who cares?” Every scene in the film that neglects to implement animation can’t help but feel like wasted potential.
As previously mentioned, Tom and Jerry live-action crossovers are nothing new. Evidently, the secret to a successful one is to immerse humans in the cartoons’ infinitely creative animated landscape as opposed to stifling the animated characters within our dull, real-world confines.
Director: Tim Story
Writer: Kevin Costello
Stars: Chloë Grace Moretz, Michael Peña, Colin Jost, Rob Delaney, Ken Jeong
Release Date: February 26, 2021
Natalia Keogan is a Queens-based writer who covers film, music and culture, with particular interest in the horror genre and depictions of sexuality and gender. You can read her work in Narratively, Filmmaker Magazine and Paste, and find her on Twitter.