The Tom & Jerry movie came packed with a whole host of pop culture references — including a bizarre easter egg that turned Droopy in Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck from Joker. Created by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, the titular cat and mouse first debuted in 1940. From then until 1958, the duo featured in 114 shorts, garnering several Academy Awards in the process. Though MGM’s cartoon studio was closed for a time, Tom and Jerry were often revived. With their legacy continuing to endure across the decades, they featured in further shorts, full television series, and even cinematic outings. Directed by Tim Story, the latest was released simultaneously in theatres and via HBO Max.
The film followed Thomas D. Cat and Jerome A. Mouse as they sought a fresh start in New York City. There, Tom sought a career as a pianist but found his efforts constantly derailed by the antics of Jerry. The situation escalated when Jerry took up residence at the Royal Gate Hotel and Tom was hired to catch him. Their legendary feud rapidly saw them cross paths and clash with Kayla Forester (Chloë Grace Moretz), Terrance Mendoza (Michael Peña), and Henry DuBros (Rob Delaney). The chaos also threatened to derail the wedding of Preeta (Pallavi Sharda) and Ben (Colin Jost). Along the way, Tom & Jerry featured an array of direct references and easter eggs to other Warner Bros movies and beyond.
Those references were made right out of the gate. Arriving in New York, Tom opted to navigate the city via the subway in the film’s opening moments. As he emerged from a station, a billboard could be seen prominently behind him. It depicted Droopy in a red, yellow, and green suit, lurking on the fringes of the image. Though he had bright orange hair instead of green, it was evident that Droopy had been turned into Phoenix’s version of The Joker. That fact was made clearer by the clown make-up that he wore and the “put on a happy face” slogan emblazoned alongside him.
On the surface, the inclusion was a bizarre one, given the disparate tone between Tom & Jerry and Joker. However, it was undoubtedly an amusing one. Plus, it actually made a certain kind of sense on several levels. For starters, both films were Warner Bros. releases. Also, though Joker was based in Gotham City, it very much reflected a side of New York that’s often seen such Martin Scorsese films as Taxi Driver. As such, it’s fitting for the city to have such a billboard up as Tom made his arrival and remained uncertain of his future there. Equally, the fact it overlooked a station felt especially poignant. After all, many of Joker‘s pivotal scenes – including his first murders and the genesis of his wider recognition – occurred on and around the subway.
Interestingly, of all the cartoon characters to be turned into Phoenix’s award-winning Joker, Droopy would actually be a good fit. Created by Tex Avery in 1943, Droopy was every bit the polar opposite of that era’s cartoon characters. As such, he could be similarly characterized as not fitting in with society as Arthur Fleck. Equally, he had unique attributes that made him stand out further, although his deadpan, monotone voice wasn’t quite the same as Joker‘s laughing illness. Everything about him, right down to the name Droopy, also denoted mental health issues.
However, just like Arthur, Droopy’s unassuming nature also belied something more. Despite everything, he was always shrewd enough to outwit his foes. Plus, when truly pushed, Droopy would equally lash out with angry and violent outbursts. Even something as simple as being laughed at would set him off. No matter the size of his opponent, Droopy would deliver a comically-conveyed thrashing. All the while he would state, “You know what? That makes me mad!” While it wasn’t anywhere near to the same degree of violence, Arthur Fleck would nonetheless still be proud. As such, though Tom & Jerry has received only mixed reactions, its reference to Joker denoted attention to detail that crossed the line into hilarious.