Be thankful for small favors: The new movie Tom & Jerry does not re-imagine the famous cat-and-mouse enemies from countless cartoon shorts as photorealistic CG creations. Though the movie isn’t fully animated, it avoids the uncanny valley of the Garfield or Alvin and the Chipmunks films, instead portraying a hybrid New York City where all the humans are live-action, and all the animals are rendered as cartoons. Tom, Jerry, and various other creatures are rounded out enough to pass for vaguely three-dimensional creations, but they have the same appealing design simplicity as the 2D animation of yore.
This is a path less traveled for adapting classic cartoon characters into a big-budget feature film. Surprisingly few movies have even attempted to replicate the success of Robert Zemeckis’ 1988 marvel Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which combined live-action and animated characters with unprecedented, eye-popping dexterity. Roger Rabbit is the rare technological-breakthrough movie that was almost immediately made obsolete: a few years after its release, advances in CGI made sure that no one would have to go to such back-breaking trouble to combine live action and animation.
What’s more, the handful of attempts to imitate Roger Rabbit weren’t especially popular. Space Jam did well, but the Bugs Bunny movie that owes more to the Roger Rabbit sensibility is really Looney Tunes: Back in Action, a 2003 flop directed by Joe Dante, who packed it with in-jokes, references, and mayhem sorely missing from the basketball movie. Similarly, 2000’s The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle adapted the self-referential 1960s TV series into a live-action/animation hybrid — to widespread disinterest from paying audiences.
Visually, Tom & Jerry resembles those two underrated movies, letting cartoon slapstick loose in “our” world. In spite of its flaws, the movie does preserve the mutual antagonism between Tom (the cat) and Jerry (the mouse), as well as a certain animalistic self-interest. They’re reintroduced as New York hustlers of sorts: Tom is pretending to be a blind musician, because a sighted cat who can play the piano apparently isn’t impressive enough on its own, and Jerry earns Tom’s ire by horning in on his racket, attempting to raise money to buy himself a new home. They both also remain silent, as in the original shorts. (Other iterations over the years have committed one of two cardinal Tom and Jerry sins: either having them talk, or turning them into friends. Here, their team-ups are silent and tentative.)
Eventually, Jerry settles in at a posh hotel, pilfering small items from purses to furnish his own miniature luxury pad, complete with tiny door and tiny “Do Not Disturb” sign. Tom, still chagrined over the mouse’s interference with his music career, pursues him with no thought of the destruction it will cause, to the hotel or to himself. Eventually, Tom finds a way to monetize his rage. He’s hired to take care of the hotel’s “mouse problem” — which is to say, Jerry.
This would all have the making of a splendid Tom and Jerry farce, if not for those bothersome humans. The actual main character in this movie about a cartoon mouse punching a cartoon cat is designated relatable millennial Kayla (Chloë Grace Moretz), who scams her way into a temporary hotel job assisting Terrance (Michael Peña) with the lavish wedding of two wealthy socialites/Instagram influencers (Colin Jost and Pallavi Sharda). Desperate to impress the hotel manager (Rob Delaney), Kayla hires Tom and gives him a jaunty little bellhop hat. She also becomes a confidante of sorts for the bride-to-be, who feels some hesitation about her wedding’s over-the-top details. These plotlines provide ample opportunities for familiar actors to mug, riff, and flail through all the dead air between the big cat-and-mouse battles. Collectively, the live-action cast generates maybe two laughs, total.
It didn’t have to be this way. Bob Hoskins gave a legitimately impressive physical and emotional performance opposite a bunch of cartoons in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and the actors stepping in for Looney Tunes and Rocky & Bullwinkle cameos all appeared to be having fun, like bit players in the old Muppet movies. Moretz, by contrast, expends a lot of effort and little else, playing every facial expression to the hilt and telegraphing to everyone that she’s Doing Zany Comedy.
Ultimately, though, the problem isn’t any one actor so much as Tom & Jerry’s approach to this material. The Looney Tunes and Rocky & Bullwinkle movies used their big Hollywood productions (as well as any attendant budgetary shortcomings) to make fun of themselves. They seem merrily aware of their own futility as movies that must follow both classic source material and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. (Rocky & Bullwinkle even includes Robert De Niro, playing the cartoon supervillain Fearless Leader, angrily insisting that this movie is nothing like Roger Rabbit.) In this way, they’re true to the spirit of the original cartoons, which were full of fourth-wall breaks, asides, and jokes about their own jokes.
Maybe this tone would have seemed smarmy for Tom & Jerry, which has always been a simpler, less showbiz-oriented enterprise. Regardless, director Tim Story goes too far in the other direction, cramming in pat (and yet also kind of incoherent) third-act lessons about honesty and ambition, which will be about as interesting to kids as the fate of Colin Jost’s expensive wedding. The movie may look like one of those clever, ill-fated Roger Rabbit descendants, but it clearly wants to remain palatable to fans of Alvin and the Chipmunks-style grotesquerie, where shamelessly chintzy characters are re-rendered as expensive special effects around which actors can debase themselves.
It may well represent a savvy business strategy. The movie preserves the characters’ core slapstick while attempting to flatter parents with its pretend-adult dialogue. Looney Tunes: Back in Action and Rocky & Bullwinkle are outliers in the live-action/animation hybridization — in part because they weren’t especially popular, and in part because they were more interested in rambunctious cartooniness than passing themselves off as “real” movies with (gag) heart. Tom & Jerry feels freer in its moments of unbridled cartoon silliness than it ever does when it’s attending to its human plotting. It’s yet another hybrid where the overlit crumminess of live-action tries and fails to rescue animation from its own artistry.
Tom & Jerry is now in theaters and streaming on HBO Max through March 28th, with a widespread digital release to follow.