The classic Hanna-Barbera duo Tom & Jerry returned to the big screen in 2021 for the first time since 1992, but while Warner Bros. sticks to the tried-and-true formula in some cases, there are some big changes from the characters’ original appearances. Streaming now on HBO Max, the classic cat-and-mouse story gets the live-action treatment, integrating animated characters into the “human world” for the first time in the franchise’s history. But with so much history to pull from, the film keeps certain familiar elements intact while taking its titular characters into uncharted territory.
Beginning in 1940, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera created 161 theatrical short films which played upon their iconic cat and mouse characters. Tom and Jerry earned the duo seven Academy Awards for Best Animated Short Film during this run. After 1965, the hijinks moved to television, initially as edited versions of their classic shorts, but later in their own show. Tom and Jerry featured in several series over the subsequent decades: The Tom and Jerry Show (1975), The Tom and Jerry Comedy Show (1980–1982), Tom & Jerry Kids (1990–1993), Tom and Jerry Tales (2006–2008), and most recently The Tom and Jerry Show (2014–present).
In the last 30 years, Tom and Jerry have starred in several feature-length films. Tom and Jerry: The Movie flopped in 1992 after breaking many of the show conventions developed during the preceding decades. 13 direct-to-video features followed before the duo made their triumphant return to theaters (and streaming, as per HBO Max’s deal with Warner Bros.) with 2021’s Tom & Jerry. The film follows the formula of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) in its combination of human and animated characters, representing the first time Tom and Jerry have shared the screen with real-life counterparts. The visual design of the titular cat and mouse also differs from their forbearers in several ways. Nevertheless, the movie maintains other defining qualities of the iconic franchise.
Following the success of more photorealistic animation/live-action hybrids like 2007’s Alvin and the Chipmunks, the Tom and Jerry franchise announced its return to theaters in that vein in 2009. The film languished in development hell, going from a live-action hybrid to completely-animated and back again. Finally entering production in 2018, the end product sought to emulate the cartoonish nature of Roger Rabbit set in the real world rather than render Tom and Jerry in full detail, as did the Chipmunks movies and Garfield: The Movie (2004) before it. In so doing, the film has it both ways: beloved cartoon style and slapstick alongside live-action characters and casting choices.
And speaking of those live-action characters, they make for the principal difference between the cartoon and movie. The protagonist of Tom & Jerry is not the titular cat or mouse, but rather Kayla (Chloë Grace Moretz), a millennial audience surrogate. Her character is the one who undergoes change, using Tom and Jerry’s hijinks as a means to an end while she navigates her fellow live-action cast including Michael Peña, Colin Jost, Rob Delaney, and Ken Jeong. The driving narrative conflict comes not from the cat-and-mouse parable, but from Kayla’s struggle to work her newfound job and the increasingly precarious wedding; Tom and Jerry merely complicate these plans.
The next biggest change between the cartoon and the movie has to do with reconciling their animated and live-action environments. While they are still animated and maintain their cartoonish style, Tom and Jerry are rendered in 3D for the first time. They may not have photorealistic hair a la Sonic the Hedgehog (2020) or anatomically correct designs a la The Lion King (2019), but never before have this iconic cat and mouse been inflated to fit in the “human” world. In fact, while the film is ostensibly live-action, great care is taken to demonstrate that all the animals in this world are as Tom and Jerry: animated.
Still, despite this being the duo’s first foray into 3D, their design remains true to their origins, borrowing most heavily from the latest of the television series in color and line work. Over the course of several TV iterations, the designs of the titular cat and mouse have varied: some feature heavier outlines, some cuter faces, and others small variances in color palette. Like Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse (2018), the filmmakers on this latest project find creative ways to integrate this cartoonish style into three-dimensional space. Clearly, efforts were made to respect the tradition of this established brand.
In the spirit of respecting the Tom and Jerry tradition, the new movie maintains several key brand elements while avoiding certain cardinal sins of the franchise. Although it introduces several entirely new, live-action characters, it brings back certain familiar foes. Spike, the vicious bulldog who so often found himself enraged by Tom and Jerry’s hijinks in the animated series’, finds himself in this film as Ben’s dog. Butch, an alley cat who previously served as Tom’s adversary in several shorts and episodes, also makes an appearance. Goldie the Goldfish and Toodles “Toots” Galore also make appearances, owned by hotel manager Mr. Dubros and bride Preeta, respectively.
One pitfall which helped sink the ’92 film was the decision that the famously-silent Tom and Jerry should be given voices. Here, the filmmakers solve that problem by allowing the human characters to bear the brunt of the dialogue while allowing Kayla to understand and reiterate to the audience Tom and Jerry’s charades. Spike and Butch do talk, though the precedent for such dialogue extends back to their cartoon versions. Tom is given some lines here and there, but these are executed tastefully by using archival recordings of prior exclamations, including from William Hanna himself. His shoulder angel and devil are voiced by Lil Rel Howery, and his brief singing scene is executed by none other than T-Pain. Though it differs in several ways, this latest Tom & Jerry film clearly respects its origins.