Using the premise that all animals are anthropomorphic 2-D cartoons, the film revolves around Tom trying to get revenge on Jerry for the mouse ruining his grift as a blind piano playing busking cat (with dreams of making it in the music industry). Jerry sees Tom’s act and decides to get in on the action so he can make enough cash to find a decent place to live – it seems that rents in NYC are restrictive even for mice. After ruining Tom’s gig and equipment Jerry finds himself at the upscale hotel The Royal Gate where co-incidentally a young woman named Kayla (Chloë Grace Moretz) is running her own grift, that of being a highly skilled hotel employee when in fact she’s found that she’s not really suited to even basic casual jobs in the big city.
The Royal Gate is hosting the celebrity wedding of the year with Instagram famous couple Ben (Colin Jost) and Preeta (Pallavi Sharda) planning an extravagant event that requires the hotel to take on extra staffing to ensure it runs smoothly. Hotel manager Mr Dubrous (Rob Delaney) hires Kayla who has somewhat unintentionally used someone else’s credentials to help manage the event under the supervision of middle management Terence (Michael Peña). Terence is immediately suspicious of Kayla and takes a small level of dislike to her which sets up and cat and mouse game between the two characters as he tries to undermine her efforts.
Meanwhile Jerry has moved himself in to the hotel and has no plans of leaving. When it is discovered that a mouse is living in the luxury building it falls to Kayla to try to remove him humanely (although the threat of exterminators is bandied about more than once). In response she officially brings Jerry on to the hotel staff, much to the consternation of Terence. Hijinks ensue. Or to be more precise, they don’t, at least not to a level that will satisfy younger viewers.
For most kids the pleasure of Tom and Jerry is seeing them fight in ridiculous ways. The rivalry is so well known and understood that it’s the basis of the meta comedy in The Simpsons with ‘The Itchy & Scratchy Show.’ There are flashes of the dynamic that run through the film, but so much potential for slapstick cartoon action is wasted by the framing narrative involving the human characters. Tom and Jerry have an entire hotel and city to work out their famous rivalry, yet for most of the film’s runtime they are chaos producing characters that tend to make life difficult for the humans in the film. It’s a shame that director Tim Story (The Fantastic 4) doesn’t just allow them more time to run their absurd shenanigans as the major plot focus.
Although the narrative does a disservice to the animated characters, visually the film is quite rich. The 2-D animation works and is in many ways quite impressive. The production design is effectively the best thing about the film. Tom and Jerry both look as they should. Avoiding creating 3-D animated versions of the classic duo was a smart move as the film already seems miles away from what made the characters work – hence changing their appearance would only serve to further alienate the audience.
Chloë Grace Moretz commits to her role as Kayla, the human who Tom and Jerry interact the most with. Like Brendan Fraser before her, she’s aware of what kind of film she’s in and gives it her all without irony. Michael Peña seems less comfortable with the role and often his well-established comedic talents are wasted. Almost completely wasted is Ken Jeong who could just as easily been played by a number of actors with the same lack of effect. Writer Kevin Costello tries to throw in some amusing one-liners for the human actors but almost inevitably the jokes fall flat for both kids and adults alike.
The biggest mistake TOM & JERRY makes is to not invest in the formula that made the original cartoons successful. Over the top antics should trump stories about human beings listening to each other and finding their place. The lessons in the film aren’t aimed at the intended audience and they’re also not interesting or meta enough for the adults accompanying the children to screenings to find amusing or care about. In effect the film could have done with more rubber mallets and fewer set pieces with uninteresting and generally underwritten human characters. A lacklustre effort that will please few.