I spent a large chunk of the experience of watching Tom & Jerry thinking about the late Bob Hoskins. As I watched talented actors struggle their way through a creaky script that could have just as easily been unearthed from a time capsule of the 1990s, or the 1970s, or the 1950s, and spruced up a bit, I thought about how difficult it truly must have been for Hoskins to not only “interact” with animated characters in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but how few actors since have effectively followed his example. Plenty of actors can now add to their CV that they’ve worked opposite characters of some kind that are created in post-production, but only a handful or two can claim that they did it well.
Tom & Jerry is, in many ways, aiming to be a live-action cartoon. But it fails in so many basic ways of cinematic storytelling. The story is dull, the characters are single-dimensionally bland, and the performances are stiff. Whether younger audiences are familiar with the eponymous cat and mouse who constantly get into outsized scuffles is immaterial; both the audience and these cartoon icons are ill-served by a movie that appears to have been conjured out of whole cloth by an executive drive to exhume intellectual property come hell or high water. Do kids care about Tom & Jerry? Maybe not, but it’s existing IP and WarnerMedia needs to mine it for all it’s worth.
Much of the plot of Tom & Jerry hinges on characters who are, in a fascinating but not terribly wise choice, not named Tom or Jerry. Kayla (Chloe Grace Moretz) is trying to secure a job and lies her way into an interim position at a tony New York City hotel the very week that it’s hosting an enormously fancy wedding. As Kayla tries to keep her new job, she finds challenges in the form of, among other problems, the cat and mouse who have descended on the hotel in the hopes of finding new digs. If there’s an interesting choice in the film, it’s the decision that every animal is animated. That’s about as fascinating as this movie gets (since it never quite feels like clarifying why some animals talk, and others, like Tom and Jerry themselves, do not).
Part of the problem with a 100-minute movie called Tom & Jerry is that its title characters were best served by the short-form format in which they first became stars. Not every memorable character can shoulder the weight of a feature film, as is clearly evidenced by many of the plot conflicts of this movie being driven by questions like “Will the bride go through her wedding to Weekend Update anchor Colin Jost?” (Jost, to be clear, isn’t playing himself, but his presence here is a bit unexpected nonetheless.) Or “Will Kayla come clean about how she lied her way into an upscale hotel job?” It’s impossible to know what children are going to think of these plot machinations, but it’s hard to imagine that such conflicts are terribly appealing.
The cast is mostly too talented and trying too hard to make the hoary material work. Moretz works overtime to sell the arc of Kayla, who’s clearly capable enough for her role at the hotel even as she desperately tries to hide how she procured the job in the first place. And as her general adversary throughout, Michael Pena comes out looking the best; his character goes through some thankless sequences, but he’s clearly enjoying himself just enough to make his presence more welcome than others.
But Tom & Jerry struggles for two pretty unavoidable reasons: the two leads are uninteresting (would you believe they team up by the end, and aren’t nearly as nasty to each other throughout as they used to be?), and the interaction between live actors and animated characters is never once remotely believable. We have come to accept that countless movies are going to blend live action and animation, but we have seemingly decided to shrug past the many, many, many movies that fail to create an effective blend of the two. Tom & Jerry struggles the way myriad other effects-laden films struggle. All it does is make you think of the few times real magic was pulled off. We can all do better than this.
/Film Rating: 3 out of 10
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