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Tom And Jerry Review: Old Enemies Re-Animated

True story: One of this writer's first teenage jobs was as a camp counselor, and one of my first assignments in that role was taking a dozen 10-year-olds on a rainy day to the local movie theater to see 1992's Tom and Jerry: The Movie. If you haven't seen it, that was the supposedly "modern-minded" reboot that had Tom and Jerry talking, avoiding violence, becoming friends... and leaving my camp kids bored out of their minds. I spent 90 miserable minutes chasing them around the theater as they attempted to do anything but watch it; hush-screaming at them to sit down, I learned a lesson: There are few things worse than taking kids to see a movie made for them, but that doesn't even understand what they want.

Thanks to the box-office thud of that movie, Tom and Jerry haven't been seen on the big screen since — until now, that is, as Tim Story's live-action/animated blend Tom & Jerry arrives in theaters and HBO Max. Not to make things all about yours truly, but this time around I have a 12-year-old son who has been anticipating the film so much he's been watching and re-watching the trailer on YouTube for months. So at the risk of making the same mistake twice, I asked a kid to watch a Tom and Jerry movie with me.

This new movie declares its own rules immediately, as a trio of rapping pigeons flies around New York in the opening credits. We quickly learn that in this world, all animals are animated, and all humans are live-action. It's a clever idea, because to just have Tom and Jerry be cartoons would be weird, but to have every animal animated means that even when the stars aren't onscreen, hijinks can ensue via cartoon elephants, peacocks, and other creatures. Even in the background, people are going past walking cartoon dogs. Without going so far as to put this film anywhere in its class, it gives Tom & Jerry a Who Framed Roger Rabbit vibe.

Chloe Grace Moretz (Kick-Ass) plays Kayla, a young woman whose eagerness to climb the corporate ladder has her fibbing her way into a posh job at a fancy Central Park-adjacent hotel. We quickly learn that her dim boss Mr. Dubros (Rob Delaney, Catastrophe) and his suspicious underling Terence (the always entertaining Michael Pena from Ant-Man) are very nervous because they are about to host a Bennifer/Brangelina-like celebrity couple's wedding, and everything must be perfect.

Of course, a certain cat and mouse have other plans. If you aren't familiar, Tom and Jerry stretch all the way back to 1940, when the largest studio in Hollywood was MGM and an animator named Joseph Barbera teamed up with a fellow employee named William Hanna to pitch an idea that would go on to become one of the most popular cartoons of all time. In the time since, there have been more than 150 shorts (cartoons that ran before movies, once upon a time), a dozen TV shows, another dozen or so direct-to-video films (the best of which is The Fast and the Furry, btw) and much more.

This new Tom and Jerry isn't the first time we've seen them opposite live-action co-stars (that would be 1945's Anchors Aweigh), but it is perhaps the best recent example of the "take an old cartoon and make it live action" plundering spree that Hollywood has been on for the last several decades. It's much better than 2010's Yogi Bear, 2007's Underdog, 2010's Marmaduke, or either of the Garfield or Scooby-Doo films. The four Alvin and the Chipmunks movies and two live-action Smurfs movies have enough fun moments (and young fans) to be a cut above, and Tom & Jerry deserves to be in that conversation.

One down, eight lives to go

From the moment my son sat down with me, the laughs came steadily. He has watched all the classic Tom and Jerry cartoons many times (as did his father growing up), and the first noticeable thing was how he appreciated certain gags that had been played out in the shorts over and over again. When Tom hit Spike the dog with a hammer and made a bump, we knew he'd push it down and another bump would take its place; when a block of cheese released a wavy aroma, we knew Jerry's nose would have him floating through the air towards it; when Jerry looked into his closed fist and Tom went to see what was there, my son screamed "don't do it" and sure enough, Jerry's fist ended up in Tom's eye.

Isn't it strange, in these times when so much of society seems to be trending towards caution, that animation has once again decided violence is funny and there's nothing wrong with that? You can take whichever side you like in the battle, but it's hard to argue that if you show kids the classic Tom and Jerry shorts, they laugh; if you show them Tom and Jerry: The Movie (where they sing a song together called "Friends to the End") you might as well ask them to eat broccoli.

So when Jerry dropped a bowling ball on Tom's foot and my son shouted "classic move," I knew Tim Story got it. Clearly his team did their homework, watched the old shorts, learned the moves and brought them into the new century. Just like in the classic cartoons, Tom and Jerry don't speak (except for the occasional song voice); just like in the classic cartoons, the only reason they would ever shake hands is so to pull the other one close enough to reveal the other hand wielding a baseball bat.

Cat-and-mouse game

Colin Jost (Saturday Night Live) and Pallavi Sharda (Lion) have a fun, breezy chemistry as the aforementioned celebrity couple, and of course their impending nuptials offer all sorts of opportunities for Tom and Jerry to wreak havoc chasing each other all over the hotel (Jerry wants to live there, Tom wants to eat Jerry, the humans want them out — what more plot do you really need?). Which brings us to another strength of Tom and Jerry: the actors actually look like they are having a lot of fun.

Moretz is perfect for this role, simultaneously playing funny and sweet, a straight woman for the cartoon characters and a plot-advancing lead for the humans. Pena and Delaney are also very enjoyable — but just as vital, Story (Barbershop) is smart enough to know that anytime humans have been alone onscreen for more than 90 seconds of talk-talk, it's time to bring back the cat and mouse game.

The music is fun, filled with a soundtrack of upbeat hip-hop, and the film has solid production value littered with fun moments of the cartoon characters leaving their mark on our world. When Pena's Terence handles Spike's leash, he gets yanked all over a bar; when the cartoons fight, it creates a small tornado that sucks in nearby humans. When Spike decides to do his business in the middle of a crosswalk, New York traffic comes to a standstill.

"That made me laugh so hard I think I cried a little" is one comment I heard from the next spot over on the couch, and my son was also a big fan of another scene when Tom creates a ridiculous Rube Goldberg device to capture Jerry, then mails him away ("It's never that easy," said my son, anticipating what would come next). Personally, I preferred Easter eggs like the Joker-spoofing subway ad that cast Droopy the dog as the crown prince of crime — and a later cameo that reinforced it.

Obviously, Tom & Jerry won't be sweeping next year's Oscars, and somewhere around the beginning of the third act, all common sense seems to be tossed out the window like a cartoon cat tied to an Acme anvil. But for what it wants to be, at a time when everybody needs an opportunity to laugh alongside whoever they're quarantined with, the film succeeds. After 81 years, here's hoping that Tom & Jerry breathes new life into these classic characters — and gets more kids to now go back and revisit the classic shorts that got them here.

The last thing my son said to me as I tucked him in was: "Dad, I really loved that movie. And I love that I watched it with you." I'm thankful to have found a movie made for kids that gets kids — and I hope that wherever those now-grown-up campers may be in the world, they're similarly sharing Tom and Jerry with the youngsters in their lives.