In the 80 years since Tom and Jerry made their cartoon debut, the duo have zonked, bonked and kerplonked one another too many times to count, and somehow the joke has never gotten old. Nor have the aggravated gray cat and his rival the clever brown mouse, who remain forever young, and forever scrappy — a hand-drawn Punch and Judy whose ruthless slapstick antics have withstood critiques from all corners, including parents who think such animated violence could be a bad influence on kids.
The erstwhile MGM stars got bad reviews when Film Roman tried to go the feature route in 1993 (that movie never should have given them voices), and they’ll probably get skewered again now that Warner Bros. has tried to position the animated duo alongside a live-action ensemble (led by a pair of daffy performances from Chloë Grace Moretz and Michael Peña) in “Tom & Jerry.” But these two pests have taken far worse — frying pans to the face, waffle irons to the tail — and managed to shake it off.
Truth be told, the movie’s a pretty faithful extension of the frenemies’ long-running feud — basically, the two cannot peacefully coexist under the same roof — and as such, we should be grateful to director Tim Story (“Shaft”) and screenwriter Kevin Costello (“Brigsby Bear”) for not dropping a two-ton anvil on our nostalgia, the way so many big-studio toonsploitation projects have in recent years. (I’m looking at you, “Scooby-Doo,” “Garfield,” “Yogi Bear,” “Alvin and the Chipmunks” and “The Smurfs” — movies that give their beloved characters ghastly CG makeovers, then awkwardly integrate them into the “real world.”)
Yes, this movie is a hybrid, which means Tom and Jerry have a full cast of flesh-and-blood co-stars, but Story set a simple rule from the opening scene, and he sticks to it: Every single animal in the movie, from singing pigeons to an executive-suite goldfish, is presented as an endearingly designed cartoon character. Or, as celebrity groom-to-be Ben (Colin Jost) puts it when the series’ familiar bulldog, Spike, makes his over-excited entrance, “He’s a little animated.” No, “Tom & Jerry” won’t be winning any Oscars, even if Hanna-Barbera shorts in which they starred racked up seven during the series’ 1940-58 run. But it’s good enough to go down easy.
Here’s the pitch: For reasons unexplained, Tom and Jerry have relocated to New York City, where they take up residence in the Royal Gate Hotel. It’s a five-star and proudly rodent-free establishment, so their presence causes problems, especially because the place is supposed to host a very swanky Indian-themed wedding between Ben and Preeta (Bollywood star Pallavi Sharda), complete with cartoon elephants.
Elephants, as every cartoon viewer knows, do not take kindly to mice. But then, neither do people, and Royal Gate employees and guests start to freak out — beginning with Chef Jackie (Ken Jeong, an underused resource) — as soon as Jerry sets foot inside. The intruder finds a tiny nook on the 10th floor and furnishes it with stolen treasures: an iPhone for a TV screen and a makeup compact for a mirror, with Preeta’s oversize engagement ring serving as the perfect chandelier.
Out on the street, Kayla (Moretz) has just quit her latest job, and pulling a fast one with a more professional candidate’s résumé, she cons her way through an interview for an opening on the hotel staff. She starts at the bottom, tasked with ridding the Royal Gate of these unwanted vermin (which she briefly succeeds in doing), and quickly works her way up to events manager, just in time for Ben and Preeta’s fancy bash. Kayla’s hardly anyone’s idea of a hero, but in Moretz’s hands, she’s likable enough — a relatable underdog in this cat-and-mouse contest.
While Kayla is trying to fake her way at the new job without attraction the attention of her suspicious supervisor, Terence (Peña), Tom and Jerry are doing battle upstairs — and though these are not Marvel-level visual effects, it’s still fun to watch the cartoon critters tearing apart a hotel room. That means making it look like the animated characters are really ripping fixtures off the walls and shredding pillows, tricks that pushed the envelope back when “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” blurred the lines between Toontown and the world we live in. From “Song of the South” to the upcoming “Space Jam” reboot, plenty of films have creatively combined these two spheres, and for better or worse, this one does so without getting all postmodern about it (apart from a few gratuitous inside jokes, like a “Joker” billboard featuring Droopy).
“Tom & Jerry” resists the temptation to redesign its title characters, although they get some subtle tweaks. The team at Warner Animation Group has eliminated the thick black lines that make them look “cartoony,” and added shading here and there to give them a bit of dimension. But they remain the Tom and Jerry we’ve always known, right down to the decision to keep them silent. They still raise a ruckus, of course, but they don’t speak, relying on pantomime and sight gags to communicate. It does feel as if the filmmakers may have been pressured to have Tom and Jerry kiss and make up in the end, but rest assured, if the movie does well enough, they’ll be back at each other’s throats.