In tackling one of the most notorious feuds in pop culture history, director Tim Story used one guiding principle: “It’s not war; it’s sibling rivalry.”
Those rivals would be Tom and Jerry, the beloved Hanna-Barbera cartoon characters who first came to exist out of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1946. The duo are now relaunching in a live-action/animation hybrid movie that debuts Feb. 26 on Warner Bros. and HBO Max.
The studio approached Story with the property nearly three years ago, drawing on his deep comedy background with successful franchises including Ice Cube and Kevin Hart’s “Ride Along” series — two mid-budget movies that together grossed close to $300 million worldwide — and the ensemble films “Think Like a Man” and “Think Like a Man Too.”
Story’s “Tom & Jerry” reimagining depicts the frenemies in their two-dimensional splendor, thrust into a real-life New York where they’re just another mouse and cat trying to make it in the big city. Fate brings them to a luxury hotel on the weekend of a celebrity wedding, where fellow hustler Chloë Grace Moretz is faking her way to the top of the hospitality business.
“It happened to be my No. 1 cartoon growing up,” Story says. “You immediately hit on nostalgia. A big smile comes to your face. The challenge was: How do you translate a 7-minute short into a feature-length format? The script did everything I needed it to do. It was humorous, and it had a human story you could follow.”
A major reference for the project was the 1988 film “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” a spoof of Los Angeles crime noir that saw cartoons mingling with humans as they never had before. Story was adamant that the iconic Tom and Jerry not cross the visual spectrum and enter live-action “Lion King” territory.
“By no means were we trying to make Tom and Jerry a real cat and mouse,” Story says. “They live by certain rules — they can be cut in half and smashed. At the same time, they’re being thrown into the real world. Our world, our rules. That template allowed us to have the most fun. As long as I could get the actors to buy into the tone, we could just be wacky. Let them fight and destroy property, furniture, all the things they’re known for.”
Buying into that tone was a tall order for the human actors — a cast that also includes Michael Peña, Colin Jost, Ken Jeong and Rob Delaney — who had to play broad physical comedy with “a piece of tape on a stick,” says Moretz. Early in development, Story ordered up a gray-scale model of Tom the cat, operated by puppeteers, to give the performers something to play against.
“If anyone were to do this correctly and hit all those critical comedic beats, it would be Tim,” Moretz adds. “You can tell from the work he’s done that he’s not afraid to push the envelope and reinvent.”
Story found his first animation project creatively compelling. He “fell in love with the technology and the freedom of storytelling,” he says. “So much of this movie came together in post. I’ve done smaller-budgeted movies, and you don’t have the luxury of going back when you get a better idea.”
While the project was conceived with the intention of reinvigorating WarnerMedia vault IP in theaters, “Tom & Jerry” is now one of the first films rolling out as part of the company’s new release model: concurrent openings in cineplexes and on HBO Max.
“I’m accustomed to theater-hopping on opening weekend to enjoy my movies with audiences, but we’re in a place now where it’s more important for us to be safe,” Story says. “And to a certain degree, as many have told me, this means more eyeballs than it would in theaters. I want families to enjoy it. If they feel safe enough to go to theaters, great, but if they want to grab popcorn and sit on the couch together, I will take that any day.”
One family in particular: Story ultimately jumped into animation so he could show one of his own films to his 9-year-old son while he’s still a kid.
“Upon sitting down and letting him see his first ‘Tom & Jerry’ cartoon, he then watched seven in a row. I wanted something I could share with my kids before they get older and don’t want to speak to me anymore,” he says. “They haven’t seen the final cut. We’re going to watch the release with everyone else.”