“Anyone can now enter the lucrative field of animated cartoons with the new Tom and Jerry Cartoon Kit! This kit contains everything needed for quiet, sophisticated humor: One mean, stupid cat; one sweet, lovable mouse; and assorted deadly weapons.” —“The Tom and Jerry Cartoon Kit,” 1962, directed by Gene Deitch
I really believe we’re bigoted against cats, as a nation. In Tex Avery’s “The Cat That Hated People,” one of the shorts packaged with old Tom and Jerry cartoons, one much-put-upon alley cat gets kicked around, tormented, and literally stepped on by the humans of New York City before availing himself of a rocket to the moon in order to escape the people he vocally despises. There he finds an assortment of animated (as in, autonomous) objects that often form the arsenal of cartoon violence: shovels, pencil sharpeners, diapers and pins. The objects chase around and torment this misanthropic cat until he punts himself back to Earth, glad to once again be under the boot heels of uncaring humanity.
It really just seems so much meaner than anything kids watch today.
This month, Tom and Jerry are returning to the big screen (or, for many who have an HBO Max subscription, the small screen balanced on their chest as they pull the covers up to their chin and stay in bed for the 300th consecutive day). From the trailer, it looks as if a good deal of it will focus on good old fashioned, no-consequences cartoon violence of a piece with the shorts from the ’40s. It makes you wonder how well the movie will come across today, in light of just how different kids’ entertainments are today.
Tom and Jerry, throughout the years, was one of the only series ever able to occasionally dethrone Disney or Warner Bros. in terms of awards and recognition. Throughout its various different runs in theaters—the first stretch of more than 100 episodes from 1940-1958, plus a 1961 revival by Dietch that was infamously animated in Czechoslovakia and a run by Chuck Jones from 1963 to 1967—the central conceit basically remained the same. Tom the cat wants to kill and/or eat Jerry the mouse, and Jerry generally wants to embarrass and harass Tom.
The quality of the animation has its peaks and valleys as different production companies, directors and animators get their hands on the property. Over the years the characters became more anthropomorphic, gained and lost various aspects of their character design, and have changed up the sorts of venues where their antagonism takes place—Dietch set at least two of their scraps on stage at musical performances for some reason.
What’s remained mostly the same in most incarnations, though, is that they are forever trying to kick the crap out of each other.
What is it about that video above that seems so much more disturbing than it did when I was young? The screams are certainly one reason, but looking at it from 81 years in the future, the difference in tone is what jumps out at me.
Kid shows are absolutely still violent affairs today, even the ones that are viewed particularly progressively and favorably. The Legend of Korra, Steven Universe and Infinity Train regularly feature combat and even, occasionally, death. I’m sure there are plenty of people somewhere who are ready to argue that the violence on these shows is not realistic, or that it glorifies settling conflict with fists and fireballs. The pure focus on slapstick violence in old Tom and Jerry shorts is just not what shows do anymore, though.
When characters in today’s kid shows fight, hits either don’t land or, when they do, it’s for spectacle and not for laughs. Kid Cosmic may be lighthearted in general, but the characters are actually afraid of violence. You are meant to understand that the characters could die or be severely injured. Will Freidle, voice of Batman Beyond’s eponymous hero, once explained that the groan you hear after a character survives getting punched by Bane or exploded through a wall is called a “keep-alive,” meant to reassure young viewers that their hero didn’t just get killed by something that would liquefy most humans.
There’s nary a keep-alive in any Tom and Jerry episode or short, because the violence has no consequences whatsoever. You bash the cat over the head with a plank or slam a window shut on his paws and there’s some momentary throbbing and redness of the extremities in question, and then he and Jerry are back at it.
All of that contributes to an underlying meanness to the proceedings. “Baby Puss,” for instance, is just cruel in the kind of ways you can bet showrunners would never allow today. Tom is being forcibly babied by his young female owner, complete with diaper and bonnet. Jerry starts in on razzing him over it, and then a trio of alley cats come by for several minutes of sustained bullying and hazing, exactly of the sort kids experience in locker rooms. When his owner gets back and finds them playing string symphonies on his whiskers and throwing the goldfish in his diaper, she lets them off the hook and punishes him with a snootful of castor oil. That’s the closing gag.
Of course, The Simpsons has been skewering this for decades: Their show-within-a-show (within a show) The Itchy and Scratchy Show, over the years, got more and more outrageously violent, holding a kind of funhouse mirror up to Tom and Jerry sketches.
There was actually a period where Tom and Jerry left behind their violent ways, after returning to Hanna-Barbera’s stable in the 1970s. If you don’t remember it or didn’t know that the cat and mouse used to be total pals who did things like fall asleep reading fairy tales together, don’t feel bad: I didn’t either. It may have something to do with the fact nobody particularly cared about those episodes because they are boring. (Itchy and Scratchy handily parodied this, too.)
All of which is to say that Tom and Jerry’s era seems to have passed. So, where does that leave the upcoming movie? Despite casting tons of actors who are very much of-the-moment and rendering the characters in 3D, it feels dated based on that trailer. I’m not here stoking a moral panic or denouncing people who want to get a chuckle out of seeing a cat and mouse whack each other with mallets. I just really wonder if there’s an appetite for it.
My 15-year-old son, who didn’t watch too much TV as a very young child but avidly watches more recent stuff like the series I name-checked above, sat down for one short, “Cat Fishin’,” which sees the duo getting up to their usual antics at the lake and involves frequent guest star Spike the dog, who’s always ready to hand Tom his ass.
“Whoa,” the kid said. “This is, like, really violent!”
Kenneth Lowe is a regular contributor to Paste Movies. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.