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It’s becoming harder and harder these days to where live-action ends and CGI begins. Movies have relied so heavily on computer-generated imagery in lieu of practical effects that oftentimes we know, if handled correctly, it’s there if only in the back of our minds. If not, it’s easy to get sucked right out of the cinematic experience. There are some great examples of effectively utilized CGI, such as Avatar or the latest Planet of the Apes installments, both of which rely heavily on the success of these effects in order for the films to work, no matter how good they are otherwise.
On the other hand, the disastrous results of Black Panther or the most recent Fantastic Four – despite other qualities of the movies themselves, demonstrate how poor CGI can detract from the good or accentuate the bad. What was once considered a potential plus to a movie in terms of realism and world-building has developed a sort of stigma today, especially in certain cases. However, 2021’s live-action/animation hybrid Tom & Jerry takes a very different approach, even compared to its non-superhero movie compatriots.
If you’ve seen any of the crop of recent takes on old cartoon properties, such as 2010’s Yogi Bear, or 2011’s The Smurfs, or the popular Alvin and the Chipmunks series (I can keep going, but I won’t), you almost expect Tom & Jerry to follow suit and try to blend their animated characters within their milieu. Yet, with this latest installment, the filmmakers take a more Roger Rabbit approach to the combining of mediums, with flatter, less texturized animated characters and more of a justification for the nexus between the two worlds.
In the universe of this new Tom & Jerry film every animal, either dead or alive, is a cartoon. At the fish market there are boxes and boxes filled with dead cartoon fish. The prehistoric dinosaur bones at the museum are also “drawn.” This kind of continuity does wonders for the film’s verisimilitude and world-building.
All of this makes for a smoother and more impressive integration, too. Instead of the line between CGI and “real-life” being blurred, as seemingly every studio film does these days, here we can tell when the two are actually interacting, which is actually a bonus to the filmgoing experience and a lot more fun that feeling like they’re trying to trick us (I mean, we know they didn’t use an actual bear for Yogi…right?).
Since Tom and Jerry don’t speak (thank goodness) we inevitably get some human characters to follow as well. Chloë Grace Moretz plays Kayla, a young woman freshly fired from her job who manages to weasel her way into an events manager position at the prestigious Royal Gate Hotel in New York City. She’s immediately tasked with planning a wedding for the famous rich couple, Ben and Preeta (Colin Jost and Pallavi Sharda, obvious doppelgangers for Nick Jonas and Priyanka Chopra), only the hotel has recently been suffering from a mouse problem.
Specifically, one particular mouse named Jerry, who’s carved a mini apartment for himself with stolen or repurposed items from hotel guests, including Preeta’s massive engagement ring.
Enter Jerry’s arch nemesis, Tom, a musically-inclined stray cat who’d love to get revenge on the mouse for breaking his piano keyboard, and is hired by Kayla to catch Jerry before the big wedding. Little does she know (unlike everyone watching does) is that Tom is really bad at catching mice.
My gripes with the movie have little to do with its heavy emphasis on the human storylines over that of its animated stars, because this still very much feels like a proper Tom and Jerry movie. My real complaint is how badly the human story is actually told. Director Tim Story (Barbershop, Fantastic Four), working with a script from Kevin Costello, executes a pretty solid middle act, but flops spectacularly hard in the opening and closing ones.
Our introduction to Kayla never establishes a good enough motive or garner any sort of sympathy from the audience. She just got fired from some job, sure, but perhaps had we seen her unable to pay rent, or eat, or maybe if she had a sick parent who she needed to get care for, then we, too, would care.
But no. Her reasoning for needing this hotel job? She’s tired of comparing herself to her other 24-year-old friends who have cushy jobs and wants one for herself. And since she literally steals someone else’s resume (and their job) it’s nearly impossible for the audience not to view her as an antagonist. This becomes even more crucial as we realize the movie is never going to establish a clear-cut villain otherwise.
Kayla’s rival is her boss, Terence (Michael Peña), who sees her as an entitled millennial (he’s not wrong) and is bitter about how she lands her job so easily when he worked his tail off to barely get even halfway to the top. On the other hand, just like Jerry the mouse, Kayla is very much the conniving post-teen who feels like she deserves a lavish life simply because she was able to figure out how to get it.
Story doesn’t make the deliberate decision to have Terence be the bad guy (or the good guy for that matter), because what the director is trying to do is replicate the dynamic of our two furry co-stars. If you’ve ever watched old Tom and Jerry cartoons, each of the titular characters often alternates between being a protagonist and an antagonist, depending on what the animated short calls for.
The human parallels in this live-action movie might work on paper, but the stakes become too high for the audience to suddenly dismiss all expectations of cinematic conventions, or for the filmmakers to just ignore the rules of storytelling which have gone back over two millennia to Aristotle’s Poetics.
Simply put, Tom & Jerry is trying to break the rules and it doesn’t work. Perhaps an animated short preceding the actual film, which might’ve served as a re-introduction of these characters as well, could allow for this kind of role-fluctuation when you’re watching several of them in a row. Perhaps the medium of film is too long-winded of a journey to get to a single conclusion for the audience to be okay with this kind of tampering with standards.
The film falters yet again as it approaches the one-hour mark and much of the story’s deficiencies start to actually matter. The way around these deficiencies is apparently to start shoehorning conflict, which only unravels a lot of the good it had done beforehand. Prior to this, the audience had been more or less on board.
Fortunately, Tom & Jerry still benefits from a pretty solid cast who can make the film work well on a comedic level. Peña and Jost provide a surprising amount of laughs, and Ken Jeong, playing a brash chef, also adds his typical brand of comedy. The best is perhaps Rob Delaney in the role of the hotel’s Will Forte-esque general manager, somehow accomplishing the bumbling fool character without feeling like a stereotype. He’s oblivious to dishonesty but still wise enough for us to rationalize his position at the hotel. And he’s very funny.
Moretz, on the other hand, can’t do comedy. Every laugh she gets – and there are only one or two – is from the script itself, not her performance. She’s given the material and plenty of opportunity, but she just can’t deliver well enough for this type of film.
Even though we’ve seen CGI/human interaction a hundred times before, the traditional approach here allows us to actually notice and think about the tricks being employed. After all, what’s the fun in magic if we don’t ever realize that we’re watching a trick in the first place? It’s entertaining to watch the effects team engage the diminutive Jerry with his environment: picking up a diamond ring or drinking from a champagne glass or just the overall impressiveness of the mouse’s construction of his live-action apartment.
In regards to a more traditional animation-hybrid film, this is probably the closest we’ll get to movie magic in that we’re finally paying attention to these gags and wondering how they’re done – as opposed to its contemporaries where the effects exist to ensure that we don’t notice that our protagonists are actual cartoons.
It might not be as competent on a narrative level as, say, Alvin and the Chipmunks or The Smurfs (but definitely NOT Yogi Bear), but its hard to really dislike this new Tom & Jerry because of how earnestly it respects the classic animation style and routines of the original characters, which highlights how well the duo are able to translate for modern audiences. There are some great sight gags in the form of elaborate Rube Goldbergs and Acme weaponry, which are the real highlights of the movie. And it’s actually pleasing to watch the two stars interact with real-life props and people.