You know you’re in for trouble right at the start, when the pigeons begin rapping. Tim Story’s Tom and Jerry opens to the strains of A Tribe Called Quest’s classic “Can I Kick It?” as the camera swoops over the New York City skyline and finds Tom relaxing between subway cars and Jerry looking at rental properties with a shady rat real-estate agent. (“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 please be my mayor?” — the idea here is presumably to situate Tom and Jerry in a modern-day version of the city. Maybe the filmmakers were just trying to cash in on the Secret Life of Pets gravy train, but it also makes some narrative sense: After all, the city is full of cats tasked with catching mice, in bodegas and apartments and even some movie theaters.
But look, this is already way too much work to do for a Tom and Jerry movie.
A cluttered, awkward, pandering mess, Tom and Jerry (which debuts on HBO Max today) is a good example of what happens when the filmmakers don’t understand (or maybe just forget) what made their subject exciting in the first place. The classic Tom and Jerry cartoons were engines of wordless slapstick joy: fast, clever, and fun. While they have certainly gone through many iterations over the decades and are maybe not as well-regarded today — with little of the surreal inventiveness of Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner, or the wiseass narrative intricacy of Bugs Bunny & Co. — their thundering bluntness retains a primal cinematic appeal. (Besides, for all the show’s simplicity, you could spend hours arguing over who was the good guy and who was the bad guy: the craven Tom, with his Sisyphean drive, or that ever-triumphant teacher’s pet Jerry.)
Anyway, you’d think that a new Tom and Jerry feature film would prioritize the part where, you know, the cat chases the mouse. You would be wrong. Story’s film sidelines its title characters to focus on the efforts of Kayla (Chloë Grace Moretz), a young woman who loses her bicycle delivery job and then lies her way into a gig at a fancy hotel as it prepares for “the wedding of the century” between two celebrity influencer types, Preeta (Pallavi Sharda) and Ben (Colin Jost). Kayla immediately draws the suspicions of the hotel’s ambitious, snooty event manager Terence Mendoza (Michael Peña), even as she becomes friendly with the soon-to-be-weds. When Jerry wreaks havoc in the hotel’s fancy kitchen and strikes fear in the hearts of management on the eve of the big day (“If a picture of this mouse is tweeted to the InstaBookFace, or the Ticky Tock, we will be ruined!”), the resourceful but out-of-her-element Kayla hires Tom to catch Jerry.
For about ten minutes, at least. Tom and Jerry the film seems interested in just about everything but Tom and Jerry, with its elaborate (but somehow still totally half-assed) plot and its scenes of nonstop talk that pile unfunny jokes atop one another. These aren’t bad actors: Moretz was once one of our most promising young performers, and Peña is among our most versatile. But they’ve clearly been directed to exaggerate wildly, perhaps in an effort to match the cartoons they’re acting against. The result is a kind of gathering desperation, as if by making bigger facial expressions or talking faster the actors might be able to will laughs out of lines like “I’ll catch it, sir. Him. Or her. It could be a female. I’m not gender-biased.” (Still, it could be worse. Even as everyone else hams it up, the stone-faced Colin Jost drifts through the film, seemingly asking himself the very question that is also on the audience’s minds: Why is Colin Jost even in this movie?)
The animation is clever in concept: All the animals (and only the animals) have been rendered in classic hand-drawn style — that means not just Tom and Jerry, but also the aforementioned rapping pigeons (understandable), the alley cats that torment Tom (of course), the giant elephants that Preeta and Ben ride at their wedding (don’t ask), as well as all the dead fish and hanging innards we see during a scene at the seaport (really, don’t ask). Meanwhile, various objects that come into contact with Tom and Jerry have been rendered in photorealistic 3-D animation, from Jerry’s little backpack to the toilet plungers Tom uses to scale up the wall of the hotel. And to be fair, we probably dodged a bullet when the filmmakers chose not to try and animate Tom and Jerry in three dimensions. But again, all this seems like background to film’s primary concerns, which involve Kayla’s shenanigans and Mendoza’s scheming and the troubling dynamics of Preeta and Ben’s impending nuptials. Tom and Jerry is so busy, so desperately unfunny, so clunkily cacophonous that it makes you long for the simple, brain-numbing charms of the one thing it pretty much refuses to give you: a Tom and Jerry cartoon.