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Tom and Jerry on HBO Max

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Tom and Jerry.

Tom and Jerry.
Photo: Photo Warner Bros.

You know you’re in trouble from the start, when the pigeons start to rap. Tim stories Tom and Jerry opens with the strains of the classic A Tribe Called Quests Can I Kick It? as the camera flies over the New York City skyline and finds Tom relaxing between subway cars and Jerry looking at rental properties with a shady rat realtor. (Wait till you see the next place. It just screams Mouse House. Wait, can I say that?) Ignore the anachronism of lyrics like Mr. Dinkins, will you be my mayor? the idea here is presumably to situate Tom and Jerry in a modern version of the city. Maybe the filmmakers were just trying to take advantage of the Secret life of pets The sauce drags, but it also has a narrative sense: after all, the city is full of cats tasked with catching mice, in bodegas and apartments and even in cinemas.

But look, that’s already way too much work to do for a Tom and Jerry movie.

A cluttered, awkward and complacent mess, Tom and Jerry (which debuts on HBO Max today) is a great example of what happens when filmmakers don’t understand (or maybe just forget) what made their subject matter so exciting in the first place. Classic Tom and Jerry cartoons were wordless joys: fast, smart, and fun. While they have certainly gone through many iterations over the decades and may not be so well regarded today with little surreal inventiveness from Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner, or the sage narrative complexity of Bugs. Bunny & Co., their astonishing brutality retains a primitive cinematic appeal. (Plus, despite the simplicity of all of the shows, you could spend hours arguing over who was good and who was bad: the coward Tom, with his player Sisyphus, or the ever-triumphant professors fondling Jerry. )

Either way, you think a new Tom and Jerry feature film would prioritize the part where, you know, the cat chases the mouse. You would be wrong. The Storys film sidelines its main characters to focus on the efforts of Kayla (Chlo Grace Moretz), a young woman who loses her bike delivery job and then makes her way into a gig at a fancy hotel while ‘he’s getting ready for the wedding of the century between two types of famous influencers, Preeta (Pallavi Sharda) and Ben (Colin Jost). Kayla immediately attracts suspicion from ambitious and pretentious hotel event manager Terence Mendoza (Michael Pea), even as she befriends the bride and groom. When Jerry wreaks havoc in the chic hotel kitchen and scares the hearts of management on the eve of the big day (if a photo of this mouse is tweeted on InstaBookFace, or the Ticky Tock, we’ll be ruined!), The resourceful but out of her element, Kayla hires Tom to grab Jerry.

For about ten minutes, at least. Tom and Jerry the movie seems interested in just about everything except Tom and Jerry, with its elaborate (but still sort of totally half-stunned) plot and non-stop chat scenes that stack little funny jokes on top of each other. They’re not bad actors: Moretz was once one of our most promising young performers, and Pea is among our most versatile. But they have clearly been asked to exaggerate wildly, perhaps in an effort to match the cartoons they are acting against. The result is a sort of unifying desperation, as if by making bigger facial expressions or speaking faster, maybe the actors could laugh at the lines like I’m catching it, sir. Him. Or her. It could be a woman. I am not sexist. (Still, it could be worse. Even if everyone despises him, Colin Jost’s stone face drifts through the film, seemingly asking the very question that audiences also care about: Why is Colin Jost even in this movie?)

The animation is smart in concept: all of the animals (and only the animals) were rendered in a classic hand-drawn style, which means not only Tom and Jerry, but also the aforementioned rapper pigeons (understandably), the alley cats tormenting Tom (of course), the giant elephants that Preeta and Ben ride to their wedding (don’t ask), plus all the dead fish and hanging entrails we see in a scene at the seaport (really, don’t ask). Meanwhile, various objects that come in contact with Tom and Jerry have been rendered in photorealistic 3D animation, from Jerrys’ small backpack to the toilet plungers that Tom uses to make the hotel wall bigger. And to be fair, we probably dodged a bullet when the filmmakers chose not to try to animate Tom and Jerry in three dimensions. But again, this all seems to be the backdrop to the films ‘main preoccupations, which involve shenanigans by Kaylas and Mendozas intrigues and the unsettling dynamics of Preeta and Bens’ impending nuptials. Tom and Jerry is so busy, so hopelessly not funny, so awkwardly cacophonous that it makes you crave the simple, numbing charms of the one thing he pretty much refuses to give you: a Tom and Jerry cartoon.

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