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Tom & Jerry

Posted February 27, 2021 By Curiosity Inc.

WB has been quite openly eager to revitalize their Hanna-Barbera assets. This much was obvious when they tried to launch a full-fledged Hanna-Barbera superfranchise with Scoob!. In my review of that movie, I said “Don’t even get me started on all the inherent difficulties in rebooting ‘Tom and Jerry’ as a CGI film franchise for modern families.”

Well, now I guess I have to get into this.

First of all, it’s hard enough to make a movie with two mute lead characters. It’s hard enough to take two characters who were designed for ten-minute short films and give them enough material to keep them fresh over 90-100 minutes. Take it from somebody old enough to remember Tom and Jerry: The Movie (1992), that movie tried and it didn’t go well.

Secondly, there’s no way that Tom and Jerry could work as 3D semi-photorealistic CGI creations. There’s certainly no way the characters could stretch and smash, conveying all the various facial expressions in a satisfactory way. It didn’t work with Garfield, it didn’t work with Son of the Mask, and it won’t work here.

Thirdly — and perhaps most importantly — there’s the issue of the cartoon violence. Tom and Jerry have long been a flashpoint in the ongoing debate over violence in kids’ entertainment, to the point where they’ve been parodied on “Itchy and Scratchy” (by way of “The Simpsons”) for the past thirty goddamn years. Tom and Jerry’s cartoon violence schtick is so played out by now, even their parodies are played out. To say nothing of the potential political firestorm the studio would risk simply by making and marketing such a hyper-violent tentpole movie.

Then again, WB is also coming out with Kong vs. Godzilla and a Mortal Kombat reboot later this year, so what do I know?

Anyway, with all the inherent difficulties in making such a film, I never expected a Tom and Jerry film to actually get made. And then this happened.

…Okay. Huh.

First off, the animation in Tom & Jerry looks fantastic. No joke, between this and Scoob!, Warner Animation Group has come out with the most jaw-dropping animation I’ve seen in the past several years. Leagues better than anything Disney or Dreamworks has produced in the same time. Dead serious.

Of course there’s CGI involved, but the characters look like 2D animated characters with impeccably polished design. They look more or less exactly like the Tom and Jerry I grew up watching. Plus, they’re mute, they’re expressive, the violent slapstick gimmicks look great… maybe not to the extremes of their classic cartoons, but still, wow.

The trailer sells a premise in which Jerry is an unwelcome guest at a hotel, and Tom is brought in to chase Jerry out. That’s actually a pretty solid premise for a Tom and Jerry movie. Simple, straightforward, focused on the conflict between them, it’s something that could plausibly have been the premise of an old Tom and Jerry short film. (In fact, I’d be surprised if it wasn’t.) Best of all, it doesn’t look like there’s any effort made to inject any kind of heart into the franchise where it’s neither wanted nor needed. (Again, I’m looking directly at the earlier ’92 effort.)

Yes, the film is a live-action/animated hybrid, something that has NEVER EVER WORKED in the past thirty years, no matter how many short-sighted fools try to recapture the magic of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Yet this might plausibly work, as all the humans of the cast could simply pretend that Tom and Jerry are a common cat and mouse. (Muppet logic, basically.)

And what a cast of humans! Chloe Grace Moretz, Michael Pena, Colin Jost, Rob Delaney, Ken Jeong, all proven and reliable talents. And they’re working off a script from Kevin Costello, who previously wrote… um, Brigsby Bear.

That movie about a guy who got abducted as a child and raised in total isolation under the false pretense of global apocalypse, and the premise was played for comedy. Costello co-wrote that, and it’s literally his only other screenwriting credit.

I mean… okay?

Also, the film is under the direction of… Tim Story. Well, okay, his Fantastic Four movies are still radioactive turds, but at least he’s got so many other great comedy films to his name, like… uh… um… shit.

That sinking feeling got a lot deeper as the opening credits rolled, accompanied by cartoon pigeons rapping along to “Can I Kick It?” by A Tribe Called Quest. Just… fucking… WHAT?! If Tom himself hadn’t showed up partway through, stowing away on a train, I’d be worried I had queued up the wrong movie entirely. Or maybe had a stroke.

But no, it turns out that this whole movie has a soundtrack comprised of hip-hop and R&B. Why that choice? What does it have to do with Tom and Jerry? Hell if I know.

Anyway, it’s established that Tom made his way to NYC trying to make it as a musician. If that sounds weird, remember that Tom has a long established history as a pianist. Also, this is New York — it’ll take a lot more than a piano-playing cat to faze the locals.

Jerry, meanwhile, is in the big city searching for a home when he stumbles onto a vacancy at the extravagant Royal Gate Hotel. And then there’s Kayla Forester (Chloe Grace Moretz) a young go-getter who loses her delivery job in a comical run-in with Tom and Jerry.

So far, the Tom and Jerry antics are consistent with what we’d expect from them in the cartoons. Also, it’s nice that all three of our leads have something in common, in that they’re looking for a job or a home, some sense of security and, uh… belonging, and uh…

Sweet Jesus, Chloe, what are you doing?

Look, I love Chloe Grace Moretz. I’ve been a fan of hers for as long as I’ve been running this blog. But this kind of comical desperation just isn’t her bag. It doesn’t help that she’s been in the game too long and her A-list status is a selling point for the film — there’s too much Hollywood sheen on her to sell the “struggling bankrupt unemployed Gen-Z” type. It certainly doesn’t help that the character is too thin and Moretz has got nothing to work with.

Seriously, Kayla applies for a temp job with the hotel, and she does it with a resume that she stole off another applicant. And she pulled this highly unethical move with a transparent facade that should never have worked. And she did this before the filmmakers established any reason for why the character would be this desperate, what she needs the money for, how many other jobs she’s been turned down from, and so on. So right off the bat, fuck this character.

Plus, even at such a young age, Moretz has more than proven herself to be an Oscar-worthy actress who’s played roles in multiple awards-worthy films. What the fuck is she doing here? And why isn’t Hollywood making better use of her?

See, this is the problem that live-action/animated hybrid movies keep running into: It’s not enough to act against cartoon characters, the live-action actors also feel compelled to act as if they’re cartoon characters themselves. That’s not so much a problem when the actors are sharing the screen with the cartoon characters, but when the humans are talking amongst themselves and they still act like heightened buffoons, it’s pathetically annoying and unfunny.

Sure, it’s slightly less of a problem when we’re dealing with actors like Ken Jeong and Rob Delaney, both of whom are well-practiced at mugging for the camera like nobody’s business. Colin Jost and Michael Pena can hold their own at chewing scenery as well. But it’s still grating in large stretches. And again, freaking Chloe Grace Moretz?!

It’s established early and often that the animals are the only reason to watch this movie. In fact, the filmmakers even went the extra mile and made every single animal a cartoon. That’s a lot of effort taken to build the world and remove so many obstacles between the humans and the cartoons. It’s so much easier to sell the notion that the human characters wouldn’t react in any extraordinary way to Tom and Jerry. Kudos.

Oh, and the filmmakers even brought in Spike (that would be the bulldog that Tom has been scared of for decades) and Toots (Tom’s traditional love interest). They’re the pets for Ben and Preeta (Colin Jost and Pallavi Sharda, respectively), whose VIP wedding is being held at the hotel, so the animal characters are introduced in a way that makes sense. The filmmakers quickly and effectively lay the groundwork for so many potential cartoon shenanigans that go so far past Tom and Jerry themselves while still keeping a basis in the source material. Brilliant.

Speaking of which, the bride and groom have a neat little subplot in which Preeta has to learn how to rein in her self-absorbed fiance. The two of them have to learn how to disagree and argue without completely destroying their relationship and everything around them. In theory, this was a fantastic idea of reframing the perpetual Tom/Jerry conflict into a cogent theme. Sure, it’s underdeveloped to the point of ineffectual, but it’s enough to reinforce the point that somebody, somewhere in all this clusterfuck knew what they were doing.

I might also add that while Tom and Jerry are perpetually mute, the filmmakers do cheat a bit. Tom has the shoulder angel/shoulder devil thing to voice his inner moral conflict, with Lil Rey Howery voicing both. However, it bears mentioning that this cheat is well-supported by the source material.

Otherwise, Tom and Jerry’s voices primarily come from William Hanna and Mel Blanc themselves, via archival recordings. Although Tim Story himself provided a few supplemental screams and howls. We’ve also got Bobby Canavale on hand to voice Spike, but he spoke in the original cartoons and it’s not like archival recordings would do the job here, so we’ll let that slide. Bottom line: The classic characters were portrayed respectfully. They don’t say or do much of anything that would’ve been out of place in the original cartoons.

With one exception: The brief musical number in which Tom sings with T-Pain’s voice. I can forgive Tom singing for a musical number — again, there’s precedent for that. But I’m drawing a hard goddamn line at a character singing with audible auto-tune, unaided. To repeat, this is a cat singing with a clearly auto-tuned voice. What the flying fuck is this shit?

I know a lot of filmgoers will want to blame Tom & Jerry on Tim Story, and he certainly didn’t help matters, but this one was doomed long before he ever came on board. This one goes all the way back to whatever idiot studio exec decided that making this a live-action/animated hybrid was a good idea. And let’s be real, any studio exec who would hand this off to the likes of Tim Story and Kevin Costello had no business managing this IP to begin with.

Yes, everything with Tom and Jerry themselves is great. Everything that came directly from the source material is solid. Even the premise itself had the potential to be something fantastic and well in keeping with everything we know and love about the IP. The problem is that it’s padded to the gills with so much extraneous shit about the live-action human characters, centered around an outrageously overqualified Chloe Grace Moretz.

The cartoons are great and the live-action humans suck — it’s like Sonic the Hedgehog all over again. Not recommended.

Judy and Punch

Posted February 27, 2021 By Curiosity Inc.

The Alice in Underland movies are simultaneously the best and the worst thing to happen to Mia Wasikowska. She broke out in a big way with the otherwise godawful Tim Burton remake of 2010, starring in a wide variety of mainstream and arthouse hits. For the first half of the 2010s, it seemed like Wasikowska had a bright future as one of our next great up-and-coming starlets. Then the Alice in Underland sequel tanked in 2016 and it’s like we’ve barely heard from her since.

Curiosity recently led me to Wasikowska’s IMDb page, to see what she’d been up to. Imagine my pleasant surprise to see that she had recently starred in Judy and Punch, a reimagining of the classical Punch and Judy tale. And it’s the writing/directing debut of Mirrah Foulkes, who’s previously made a respectable career as a TV actor. Color me intrigued.

(Side note: Credits for story writing and producing were noticeably given to Tom and Lucy Punch. I looked it up, and these are in fact actual people. Tom Punch was the chief creative and commercial officer for Vice Studios at the time of development, and Lucy Punch has a long and admirable — I’d dare say underappreciated — career as a comedic character actor. I can’t find any confirmation as to how or if the both of them are related. “Siblings” would be my best guess, but I can’t be sure.)

Punch and Judy (respectively played by Damon Herriman and Wasikowska) are themselves a married pair of genius puppeteers with their own massively successful Punch and Judy puppet show. I might add that Punch (the puppeteer, I mean) is typically seen with a cane, and the two have a baby together. Later on, we’re introduced to the bumbling constable (Derrick Fairweather, played by Benedict Hardie) and Punch’s mistress (Pretty Polly, played by Lucy Velik), so all the traditional elements are more or less in place.

This particular take on Punch (again, the pupeteer) is your typical tortured artistic genius. He loves his craft, he’s disappointed that it isn’t taking in more money, he’s always after a bigger stage to perform on… you know the type. Oh, and it’s also worth mentioning that he’s a recurring alcoholic who can never keep his multiple promises to stay sober.

Anyway, while Punch is the headliner, it’s clear that Judy is at least his equal in regards to puppeteering talent. In fact, given her flair for stage magic and storytelling, she clearly shows a greater love and mastery toward stagecraft in general. Though of course Judy is encouraged to hide her talent, for fear that her stage magic may be confused for actual witchcraft. Even so, Judy is very much about the childlike sense of joy provided by a good story, that wonderful sense of being transported by a fantastic show.

As such, Judy bristles at her husband’s artistic choices, specifically with regards to making the show so violent. But of course slapstick comedy with puppets is what a Punch and Judy show is all about. And anyway, reasons Punch himself, the violence is what the people want.

Indeed, the town of Seaside (which is nowhere near any actual sea) is quickly shown to be populated with provincial morons who drink to excess, hold public boxing matches in the town square, and use fear of witchcraft as an excuse to stone women. Thus the film is established early on as a feminist take that examines our cultural fascination with violence, particularly violence as entertainment. Also, the “stone the witches” bit plays into violence as punishment, weighing slow and careful justice against swift and brash mob rule. Not bad.

Anyway, the plot begins in earnest when Judy steps out for a brief moment, leaving the infant daughter in Punch’s care. Long story short, hijinks ensue and the baby is accidentally thrown out the window to her doom. Judy is of course pissed off at discovering this, she argues with Punch, and he gets hot-tempered enough to beat her to death. He even utters the classic “That’s the way to do it!” catchphrase. Punch then lies and cheats his way into framing the servants (Maude and Scaramouche, respectively played by Brenda Palmer and Terry Norris), thus escaping any kind of consequence for the double homicide. So far, so’s in keeping with the traditional story.

But here’s the twist: Judy doesn’t die. In fact, she’s discovered by a roving caravan of misfits and outsiders (the kind who would be swiftly executed by our town of provincial witch-fearing idiots) and grudgingly nursed back to health.

Of course Judy’s first inclination is to go back and seek bloody revenge against her husband. Trouble is, she can’t come back from the dead without getting stoned by the paranoid mob as a witch or a demon. Even worse, she could unwittingly expose the whole caravan that rescued her, all of whom would be in danger of getting slaughtered by our village of murder-happy knuckleheads.

All of this circles back around to the notion of justice, and whether or not it really means anything in an unfair world. Then again, given Punch’s own downward spiral fueled by guilt and booze, maybe a life well lived is the best revenge in this particular case.

Damon Herriman does most of the heavy lifting here, running the gamut from loving husband to toxic bastard to manipulative liar to grief-struck wretch. Punch (by which I mean the classical Punch) is an archetypal trickster, so he calls for an actor who can swap from one face to the other on a dime, and Herriman delivers. Alas, Mia Wasikowska doesn’t get nearly so much to do, as she spends most of her running time in convalescence and weighing her options for vengeance. Still, she’s a perfectly charming lead and Wasikowska is more than capable of selling the character’s pain and righteous fury. Nobody else in the supporting cast is worthy of any particular note, but they’re all serviceable.

The writing is there and the premise is there, but it unravels quite a bit at the climax. Without going too deep into details, a character gets this huge speech about how all the townfolk are needlessly persecuting their own, turning against each other for no reason at all and living under the perpetual fear that any one of them could be next.

Leaving aside how preachy and blunt the speech is, it feels a step removed from the established themes and the source material. What exactly did Punch and Judy ever have to do with discrimination and persecuting anyone who was the least bit different? It would’ve made a lot more sense for the speech to condemn the townsfolk for their bloodlust, rushing to kill their own because it’s easy and fun. The moment was right there and I have no idea how the filmmakers could’ve whiffed it that hard.

Which brings me to the movie’s biggest problem: Its direction.

The score is a huge problem, bouncing across so many disparate styles that the composer can’t seem to pick a mood and stay with it. Likewise, the characters are all clearly designed for heightened melodrama — as with the source material — but they’re not always presented that way and the performances toward that end are inconsistent.

I could see what the filmmakers were going for here. This movie needed a director who could balance a heightened story with a grounded revisionist take. Someone like Terry Gilliam (The Brothers Grimm, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus), Ari Aster (Hereditary, Midsommar) or Robert Eggers (The Witch, The Lighthouse). Hell, even Osgood Perkins got nearer the mark with Gretel and Hansel. Alas, while Mirrah Foulkes gave it a noble try, she simply wasn’t capable of directing this project with the balance that it needed.

She did a better job of it than Benh Zeitlin did with Wendy, I’ll give her that.

Judy and Punch is one of those movies far better in theory than execution. There are a lot of great ideas in here, the two lead actors were elegantly cast, and there’s too much effort on display to simply write off. I genuinely like what the filmmakers were going for, with regard to a feminist take on “Punch and Judy” that uses the source material to comment on our strange need for violence.

Alas, Judy spends too much screentime in bed, recovering from her beating at the hands of her husband, while the husband himself is engineering his own downfall. The movie deflates through the back half, all the way until it loses the point completely by the climax.

The film starts out so strong, I wish I had liked it more. As it is, I regret that I can only give it a barely passing grade. Check it out if you’re curious.