Tom & Jerry is a cartoon I’d never planned on writing about. Not really. It’s a vintage cartoon that’s near and dear to my heart, but I had no interest in discussing it here. I figured whatever opinions I had would be the usual takes you’d hear anywhere else if you wanted to know what people think of Tom & Jerry, and I don’t like adding to the conversation if the thoughts and reasons are the same as everywhere else. It just makes for a single, ear-burstingly loud cacophony of noise.
However, that’s changed now. In the middle of February 2021, a pair of Tom & Jerry shorts – “On A Roll” and “The House That Cat Built” – were posted onto the HBO Max streaming service. That isn’t particularly unusual. There’s been plenty of post-MGM T&J projects, particularly in recent years. In fact, this was a few days before the release of the live-action/animated movie and well before the otherwise unrelated Tom & Jerry in New York TV series scheduled to air during the year.
What is unusual is that these two, collectively called the Tom & Jerry Special Shorts, were worked on by the same creative crew responsible for the Looney Tunes Cartoons series, which has been well regarded for capturing the spirit of the 1940s Looney Tunes better than many other similar projects. And like with those cartoons, I’d be hearing much the same about these cartoons. That these were the closest Tom & Jerry had been to feeling like the 1940s shorts since the 1940s shorts. I was quite excited at the prospect, and so I finally set aside some time to watch them.
I watched them. And I didn’t like them. In fact, I felt nothing towards them. They’re not bad. They’re certainly better than a lot of the other T&J projects done over the years. But they did nothing for me, so much so that it made me realize something in a very tangible way.
I don’t need new Tom & Jerry.
There’s a lot of baggage attached to that phrase, and a lot of it is personal to me in really specific ways. So it’s best I explain why I came to that realization.
Tom & Jerry was one of the earliest cartoons I remember watching. We used to have a bumper collection of shorts that came on two VHS tapes, which I watched constantly. I always watched the shorts whenever they aired on Boomerang, RTÉ Two (one of Ireland’s national channels) or wherever else they showed up. I continued to watch them well into my late teens until we lost our TV signal in some weird nonsense back in 2014, and then I settled for getting the UK DVDs a couple years later.
They’re among my favourite cartoons to watch, and they had a tremendous influence on what I like. They got me to appreciate the role that sound design plays in giving your work the emotional impact you want (even if it’s wincing at a grievous injury). Scott Bradley’s phenomenal score is the birthplace of my love and appreciation for soundtracks. Those shorts are why I adore brassy orchestral music from the 1910s to the 40s, and why I’m instantly attracted to anything set during that era from contemporary works such as the Jeeves & Wooster stories to tributes made decades later like Radio Days and Dad’s Army.
When it comes to cartoons from the Golden Age of American Animation, Tom & Jerry is the pinnacle of that time and what their creators could do. For me, anyway. Those old cartoons mean the world to me.
However, just because the old cartoons were great doesn’t mean that anything else based on Tom & Jerry was similarly great. For the most part, that hasn’t ever been the case. Personally, I feel the MGM cartoons even started losing it after 1952 – well before the animation studio closed down. With the exception of the Gene Deitch directed shorts in the early 60s, nothing with the Tom & Jerry name has compelled me quite like those old cartoons did.
At best, I’d laugh at the desperate attempts to stick these characters onto overdone clichés (both theatrical movies, Tom & Jerry Kids). At worst, I’d get frustrated at how off the mark they were in either intention or execution (the Chuck Jones shorts, Tom & Jerry Tales).
To be honest, I’ve always kinda understood that the old Tom & Jerry – the one from 1940 to 1952 that means so much to me – was never coming back. But there was always something about these newer projects that could be used to excuse their faults. Maybe it wasn’t the right creative team working on it. Maybe there weren’t enough resources dedicated to the music, sound design and animation to really make it work. Maybe there was some interference from rich idiots upstairs insisting on idiotic ideas.
The idea behind those excuses was the hope that if the stars aligned, it would be possible to get a Tom & Jerry that felt like it came out of the 1940s – to go back to that feeling, that score, that animation, that everything. One last time.
Such a desire is inherently absurd, of course: it was lightning in a bottle. Everything that came together to make the original shorts what they are, whether those elements came together by choice or by chance, are gone. This is the case for so many things, in animation and elsewhere. I’ve seen and understood that fact in every other instance. But I didn’t understand it with Tom & Jerry.
I’d use those excuses myself, thinking that if they just did things this way or hired that composer to do the music, it would work out just fine. Even as newer projects were revealed that made me indifferent through their art direction (the 2014 Van Citters show) or their premise (the 2021 movie), part of me would still pay attention to it in case something turned out to be okay.
And that was what I felt going into these Special Shorts, especially after what I’d heard. I thought they’d finally cracked it, that the stars had aligned. You finally got a creative crew who know how to make a good cartoon similar to those from the 40s, there’s finally a composer who knows how to do old-school cartoon scores (that being Joshua Mourier), and there’s no meddling from moron executives. There’s no reason in the world this can’t be anything but the kind of classic T&J cartoon I’ve been wanting for years.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. Not for lack of trying, mind you. The people working on this really did go as hard as they could to make a good Tom & Jerry cartoon. There’s a bunch of clever gags, the character designs harken back to the early 40s, the shorts feature plenty full of well drawn and animated reactions, scenes and the like. Compared to the likes of Tales or the 2014 show, it’s well beyond what those were doing.
But there’s a lot that’s off. I acknowledge this is more a reality of how US cartoons are often made now, but the way the characters are animated – I believe it’s rigging? – clashes with the old-school designs that felt uncanny. The music by Joshua Mourier and Carl Johnson is mostly the kind of bland, bad cartoon music that I can’t stand where it punctuates every single moment without any of the qualities that Bradley’s scores delivered in spades.
And then there’s the sound design. For whatever reason, they went with the decision of using a mix of sound sources: you’ve got sounds and screams from the original MGM shorts, sound effects from cartoons in the 60s/70s, and modern sounds from either sound libraries or whatever’s included in the editor. The difference in recording quality between all three sources is very noticeable, and it becomes really distracting.
What bothers me in particular is the overuse of the Bill Hanna Tom scream. Yes, that scream is legendary, but the reason it’s legendary was in how it was used. You’d almost never hear it in the original shorts, and when you did, it’s because something major just happened. Whether Tom just got hurt really badly, or a twist was introduced that barreled us towards the short’s climax, that scream was a shorthand for how the stakes were now raised. Using it constantly diminishes that importance drastically, and to me, it was the biggest sign that this wasn’t what I hoped for.
As I was watching these two shorts and not really enjoying them, I realized that the old Tom & Jerry was gone and is never coming back. Yes, I’d always known that to be true, but it was only now that I got it. Those stars can never align; they never could, and it’s absurd to think it was possible. Like I said, everything that made Tom & Jerry what it is to me came and went a long time ago.
That’s what I mean when I say that I don’t need new Tom & Jerry. It’s not what I wanted it to be, and it never could be. No matter how good the circumstances are, it’s not going to mean anywhere near as much to me as those old cartoons.
And to be fair, that’s not something the creators should have to answer for. That may not have even been what they set out to do. They did the best cartoons they could, under whatever circumstances they worked through in what was very clearly a labour of love. The same goes for all the other post-1952 projects too: even the ones struggling under the weight of dumb ideas from idiots upstairs are still trying to do something.
I’m the person who doesn’t need new Tom & Jerry. There are plenty of folks who are interested in all these new cartoons, and will be interested in whatever comes after this article goes up. So it’s not something the audience should address, either. It’s something that only I can deal with. And despite how this might read, I’m actually very okay with that realization.
As mentioned above, I haven’t enjoyed most of the T&J cartoons since 1952, so it’s not a radically new mindset I have to adapt to. Really, the only thing that’s changed is that I have no interest in making excuses for new productions anymore. All that I want to do now is move on from that, and to move forward in general.
That’ll be fairly easy for me to do, since I’m always doing my best to look out for things I’ve never seen before. Apart from this specific case, I’ve rarely felt the need to ruminate in the hope of a nostalgic love returning to its former glory.
If I ever want to feel the way the old Tom & Jerry cartoons made me feel, I can just watch the old Tom & Jerry cartoons. I’m content with that. I’m content with finally having closure on something that’s quietly bugged me for years. And I’m content with moving on.
Special thanks to TransformMarvel and CJM from the World Animation Discord, who respectively posted copies of the Special Shorts and the original cartoons that I used for taking the screenshots featured in this article.
FrDougal9000 writes for hardcoregaming101.net as Apollo Chungus. When he isn’t writing about video games, he is cultivating his love of animation that’s only increased over the last few years as he’s explored the wide, weird and wonderful world of the medium.