A couple of months ago, I discovered that the original “Tom and Jerry” television series was available through HBO Max. I clicked on season one, episode one and let the show run its course. Jerry’s clever schemes intertwined with the program’s signature slapstick humor never get old. Watching Spike the Bulldog chase after Tom and seeing a tall bruise grow out of Tom’s head always reminds me of simpler times.
Now, the 2021 film “Tom and Jerry” takes all of the fun animations of the original series and ups the stakes. Kayla (Chloë Grace Moretz, “If I Stay”) is young and ambitious but inexperienced, and can’t seem to find a steady job. She walks into The Royal Gate Hotel in Manhattan, N.Y., which happens to be hiring temporary employees for a huge wedding coming up between stars Preeta (Pallavi Sharda, “Beecham House”) and Ben (Colin Jost, “Saturday Night Live”). Kayla steals someone else’s résumé and gets an event planning job. But things get messy when Jerry settles in the hotel after wandering the streets of Manhattan looking for a home. Kayla, as a newly hired employee, attempts to prove herself with a creative solution to the mouse problem. When she sees Tom chasing after Jerry, she decides to team up with him to get Jerry out before the big wedding so that she can prove her professional worth and save her job.
The only animated characters in the movie are Tom, Jerry and a few supporting animal friends. As someone who isn’t the biggest fan of mixing animation with live action, I was worried that one of my favorite original cartoon series would be tainted by the effects of reality. But seeing the dynamic duo walk the streets of Manhattan and cause chaos in a real hotel room was surprisingly enjoyable. The feeling of seeing Tom and Jerry in the real world was similar to seeing a teacher in a grocery store, but in a good way — it’s somewhat comforting to know that Tom and Jerry have continued to live on outside of the confines of their original series.
Bringing a 1940s cartoon to 2021 is a difficult task, especially when you’re trying to please both an older audience, who fell in love with the dated animation and a more modern one, which expects to see a certain level of high definition. The film makes compromises to please both. Tom still goes red in the face and blows steam out of his ears when Jerry causes him harm and bumps still grow out of Spike the Bulldog’s head. But all of it occurs with a level of clarity we’ve never seen before.
The film also makes clever nods to the original show, satisfying those who aren’t sure if Tom and Jerry belong in the modern world. After witnessing the duo endlessly fight, Kayla says, “It’s like you’ve been doing this for years.” It’s as if Tom and Jerry never disappeared when the midcentury cartoon came to an end, and we’ve all just been waiting to watch them again. “Tom and Jerry” gives us this opportunity, placing the duo in modern times in the midst of social media, virtual reality and mini flat-screen televisions (Jerry has his own!).
Although Tom and Jerry bring star power to the film, Kayla serves as the main protagonist throughout. She’s underqualified and dishonest when it comes to her job, but her creativity carries her through: When word gets out that the hotel has a mouse problem, Kayla comes up with creative solutions to capture Jerry. She uses Tom for his supposed predator instincts, but as viewers, we know Tom is no competition for the witty and persistent Jerry, which makes the cat-and-mouse chase even more enthralling.
However, the film doesn’t exclusively create meaning through the endless chase between Tom and Jerry. Toward the end of the film, Kayla admits that, as a recent graduate, she sees other people her age succeeding at their dream jobs and wants to do the same. Her boss (Rob Delaney, “Catastrophe”) tells her that a résumé is just a piece of paper. Hearing this message as a college student myself is comforting. Passion and ambition can go a long way, whether it be the passion Tom and Jerry share for fighting or the passion Kayla has for her work.
While there have been many failures when it comes to bringing older shows or cartoons into modern times, “Tom and Jerry” isn’t one of them. The dynamic duo is timeless. “Tom and Jerry” takes the traditional animation and classic scheming of the older series to the next level, improving the quality of the cartoon while raising the stakes of the duo’s competition with real-world consequences.
Daily Arts Contributor Laura Millar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.