I'm honestly quite glad I was never much of a fan of Tom and Jerry, the cat-and-mouse slapstick cartoon series started by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera in 1940. Because if I was, I can only imagine how much more disgusted I would be by what has happened to the characters and the franchise since Warner Bros. acquired them in the mid-2000s. Not least that I can unblinkingly use the word "franchise" to discuss them.

I have already dipped my toes into the yawning hellmouth of direct-to-video Tom and Jerry features in the form of the unspeakable Tom and Jerry: Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, and have considered it enough to escape from that one encounter with my physical body unharmed and my sanity more or less intact, without chancing any further explorations into the series. But now we have something different, in the form of a big-budget attempt to give the brand name theatrical life (or what passes for theatrical life in the age of COVID-19), under the simple, declarative title Tom & Jerry. Yes, with an ampersand in place of the word "and", which isn't really all that big a violation of the series' norms, in the grand scheme of things, barely enough enough to make the corner of my eye twitch uncontrollably. But it's still kind of symptomatic of the problem here, which is that this never feels like it was made by people who, like, cared. This is Tom & Jerry: The Familiar Brand Exhumed for Your Consumption Habits, not Tom & Jerry: The Loving Tribute to Our History. And it ends up being pretty fucking horrible, even at the task of being a mindlessly pleasurable consumer good.

This is all a real shame, because there's at least one respect in which this honest-to-God works, and is doing something genuinely fresh and important: it is a very interesting-looking and creative live-action/animation hybrid. I have not, by design, added "successful" to the list of praise, because I'm not sure it makes it that far. But it's trying to do something by putting an animated Tom and Jerry in with real-world actors in a way that hasn't quite been done like this before (in this respect, it is a loving tribute to history, though I would imagine probably an accidental one. One of the early triumphs of live-action/animation hybridisation came when a hand-drawn Jerry danced with Gene Kelly in the 1945 MGM musical Anchors Aweigh). And that's admirable, even if it is done artlessly and to the detriment of the film's story.

How 'bout that story? In this incarnation of the timeless war between predator and prey, Tom is trying to get his music career started as a busking pianist in Central Park, while Jerry is just hoping to find a home he can afford. I would say it took precisely this long for the film to lose me, but in faith, it did not even take this long; the film opens with a sequence of animated pigeons gliding over New York while lip-synching to "Can I Kick It?" by A Tribe Called Quest. Which is, to be fair, better than when I assumed it was going to be animated pigeons lip-synching to "Walk on the Wild Side" by Lou Reed. Either way, it's a bizarre song cue for a zany slapstick comedy, and in this respect, it sets the tone for all of the song cues to follow.

Anyway, Tom wants to be a musician (he visualises his face next to John Legend's on a billboard, which is the most powerful "How do you do, fellow kids?" gesture I have seen in a movie aiming for children in quite a long time), so whatever, that's the mode we're going to be in. Fortunately, after having put real effort into establishing this as his goal, the film abandons it completely, except for two random scenes that have virtually nothing to do with the story. For that matter, neither Tom nor Jerry has much of anything to do with the story, which is actually about panicking gig economy victim Kayla (Chloë Grace Moretz), who lies her way into a temp job at the swanky Royal Gate Hotel during an emergency hiring binge, as the hotel's general manager Mr. Dubros (Rob Delaney, the only cast member who is any good at all), and the event manager Terence (Michael Peña) are in full crisis mode trying to deal with hosting the impending marriage of millionaire influencer couple Preeta (Pallavi Sharda) and Ben (Colin Jost). Kayla's attempts to hide her con by making sure the increasingly elaborate wedding and reception go off without a hitch, despite Ben's wildly escalating list of deranged requests, run her almost to the limit; fortunately, she is able to make allies of Jerry, who has snuck into the hotel to make his home, and Tom, who has been hired to eat Jerry, and they assist her.

One is tempted to simply stand back and walk away and let... all that... speak for itself. This is a surreally bad story, for a Tom and Jerry movie or for anything else, reeking of "hey, pop culture is a thing!" flop sweat from badly out of touch creatives (that nobody ever once suggests that some piece of information should be uploaded to "The Cloud" is a genuine shock). I mean, building a children's comedy around a gigging Zoomer grifter? That's one of those "might as well just throw away culture entirely" sort of moments.

But there's a whole lot to the movie beyond its barbaric script (credited solely to Kevin Costello, but of course it was undoubtedly written by wave after wave of script doctors and meddling executives over the last several years - the film has been in active development since 2009). There's its barbaric directing, for example, provided by the almost limitlessly awful Tim Story, who has now made, let's see, well this is fully his tenth movie since Barbershop, his last good film; those ten include a nice wide array of unwatchable shitpiles, from the dismal 2005 Fantastic Four and its 2007 sequel, to the vile 2019 variation of Shaft. So let us be kind, and say that Tom & Jerry is certainly not one of his worst films; it is, indeed, one of his best, if only because he has lucked his way into a movie that gets to borrow all of its visual energy from 1940s funny animal cartoons, on of the finest of all home-grown American art forms.

That's the thing, of course; Tom & Jerry is trying to resuscitate the elastic, anarchic feeling of midcentury slapstick animation, using computers to make it all a bit easier on effects artists and animators. And it's pretty successful at it, within limitations. The animated animals (and literally every animal in this universe is animated) are all three-dimensional models, like any visual effect in any contemporary movie, but they've been textured and lit to appear a little bit flatter than that. It's a variant of cel-shading, the technique by which CGI surfaces are painted with fewer gradations to give them the appearance of hand-painted celluloid, but it's not just cel-shading, as it's usually done; the computer-generated lighting also seems to have been futzed with to have significantly more diffusion than usual, so they seem to glow more than the real-world figures around them. The end result of all this feels rather effectively like three-dimensional figures with volume, but still the shiny softness of hand-painted animation.

I have my doubts this was the "right" choice. It looks reasonably unique, and the animators do a fairly good job of taking advantage of the design of the characters to indulge in a bit of rubbery animation that feels just a bit like good old squash & stretch, which makes the slapstick feel more playfully manic and less grotesquely violent. The gag sequences are all fairly uninspired (althoguh there's a sequence in which Tom gets zapped by lightning over and over again that works very well), but this is more to do with the conception of the gags themselves, rather than how they're executed by the animators. Even so, none of this really gels with the live-action footage, particularly when the camera is moving around in space, and it does this almost constantly, forcing us to deal with the mass of the characters nearly every moment. This is all seemingly on purpose; but what purpose? Dropping Tom and Jerry into the Uncanny Valley is neither good for them nor for the dismal human plot; the animals float into the human world like glowing ghosts, and Moretz is already horrible enough at convincingly interacting with the characters without them appearing to exist in another plane of reality. Plus, the question of why this had to be a hybrid world is not only left unaddressed, it becomes conspicuously unaddressed when perfectly random creatures are just animated for no damn reason. Or, in a scene of sublime horror that the filmmakers don't seem to have noticed at all, when the animals are dead fish at a seafood market, being tossed around by workers, all the while looking like bright, shiny cartoons. It's the stuff of pure nightmare.

Why the hell not just do this all animated? A question for the marketing executives, I suppose, for I have none. No more than I can answer the question of why so much of the story is taken up by the unendurable story of Kayla hustling to help Preeta and the horrible Ben (in fairness, I am not sure of Ben is horrible, or Ben as played by Colin Jost is horrible) have their disgusting, indulgent wedding; even the "stripped-down" version that inevitably happens once Tom and Jerry ruin the big one is still pretty garish. It's a movie that has no reason to exist, and doesn't try to hide it; it's nothing but one tacky choice after another, one mildly eye-watering visual after another, one effortful slapstick sequence after another. It's a miserable excuse for shoving these characters back into the spotlight, where they do nothing of narrative consequence and fail to capture the jolting energy of proper midcentury cartoons, and the mere fact that it is technically adept while being this otherwise horrible thing doesn't really justify its existence. Arguably, in fact, it makes it all worse that there's something in here worth admiring; it makes the vast bulk of it that's off-putting that much more aggravating in comparison.