Control Nathan Rabin: Tom and Jerry: Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
Even as a child, I never cared for the juvenile cat and mouse antics of Tom and Jerry, preferring instead the anarchic wit and kinetic craziness of Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes or early Disney, before Mickey Mouse got domesticated. In his early films, the Disney mascot was like the protagonist of a 1970s cinematic character study, an angry, pill-popping misfit on the fringes of society.
When children would rave about Tom and/or Jerry, I would just sigh precociously and explain condescendingly, “Sorry, but the asinine “comedy” of Tom and Jerry pales in comparison to the manic energy of early Warner Brothers, particularly the work of Frank Tashlin, who brought that sensibility with him to his live-action projects, particularly his collaborations with Jerry Lewis. Those sly, satirical, post-modern comedies were rightly hailed by the critics-turned-filmmakers of Cahiers du cinema, such as Jean Luc-Godard and Francois Truffaut.”
At that, the bullies would shove me in my locker by my neckerchief and taunt, “Hey, little Peter Bogdanovich! Isn’t there some repertory screening you could be giving that speech at? Shouldn’t you be pitching Film Comment with that nonsense? Isn’t there an audio commentary for some piece of shit Henry Jaglom movie you should be recording?”
Man, children can be so cruel, and so oddly knowledgable about the quirks and idiosyncrasies of Peter Bogdanovich. By the time they were asking me when I was going to marry the younger sister of the actress and Playboy model I claimed to be the love of my life I was torn between being angry they kept making fun of me and impressed that they, again, seemed to have such an encyclopedic knowledge of Bogdanovich’s career. I felt the same way when they’d see me looking out the window vacantly in second grade and they’d be all, “Hey PBJ (an acronym for Peter Bogdanovich Jr.), what are you zoning out about? Pining for Cybill Shepherd, your lost love, or the studio systems and people like John Ford?”
So when donors to this website’s Patreon page voted to force me to watch and write about the new direct-to-video abomination Tom and Jerry: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory over the politically charged Larry the Cable Guy vehicle Delta Farce I wasn’t worried that this bizarre new mutation of a project would ruin a classic animation duo because there’s nothing really to ruin.
The idea of an eternally warring, silent cat and mouse team lurking around in the background of a straight-faced Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory animated remake doesn’t make a lick of sense creatively. It’s so infuriating I can actually see Roald Dahl (who was nearly driven to murderous rage by the adaptation of his kiddie classic that isn’t astonishingly awful) rising from the grave to avenge what the monsters at Hanna-Barbera have done to his book.
But Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory’s existence owes nothing to inspiration or imagination or creativity and everything to do with name recognition and branding and corporate synergy and a probably well-documented, focus-group-tested conviction that an inexpensive movie combining the somewhat different legacies of Roald Dahl and Hanna-Barbera would make money on home video no matter how bad. Quality doesn’t matter, just the recognizable, lucrative brand names involved. This isn’t a movie: it’s product.
Incidentally, Tom and Jerry: Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory might seem like a hilariously unwieldy title, but it’s a distinct improvement over the original title, Tom and Jerry & Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Bob and Ted and Carol and Alice in the Big Balloon Adventure. Removing the wife-swapping and big-ballon elements of the movie made its title shorter and its premise more comprehensible.
The weird thing about Tom and Jerry: Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is that in many ways it is an almost perversely faithful remake of the 1971 Gene Wilder musical. The voice actor doing Willy Wonka does a very faithful Gene Wilder impersonation while the dude who plays Grandpa clearly has clearly spent some time as a professional Jack Albertson impersonator.
The movie opens with Tom and Jerry in a familiar state: dying of hunger. As a parent who just watched Mickey & The Beanstalk yesterday, I’m a little disconcerted at how quick kiddie cartoons are to have characters appear mere minutes away from starving to death to convey hunger.
Specifically, Tom would like to eat Jerry, because he is a cat and Jerry fucking antagonizes him and killing and then eating the mouse would temporarily satiate his awful, awful hunger.
Think about Tom. Who is Tom, other than a lovingly familiar staple ofour childhoods? Tom is a carnivore who wants to use his powerful jaws and sharp teeth to crush his little mouse friend/nemesis/foil’s skull until he’s screaming for dear life and oozing blood and muscle and bone and fur as he enters a life and death struggle for survival he’s doomed to lose. After he’s done crushing Jerry’s skull, killing him in the process, Tom then wants to finally feast upon the fruit of his labors and eat away at the meat from Jerry’s little mouse corpse until it’s nothing but a rotting, stinking skeleton to be left out in the sun to feed the maggots.
Don’t be mistaken by Tom's big eyes and incongruously friendly, helpful personality here. Underneath that banal facade lies a murderer who would like nothing better than to kill, and then devour, in full, his greatest nemesis, who also happens to be, in a curious twist, his best and only friend. That is some dark shit. That’s who Tom is. The fact that he never succeeds in his evil goals doesn’t make him any less of a monster.
Tom at least wants to kill so he can eat. Jerry would clearly like nothing better than to get his tiny little mouse paws on a cartoonishly oversized cleaver so that he can use it to slit Tom’s throat. But that wouldn’t be enough for him, would it? No like his arch-nemesis, Jerry is not going to stop until his foe is dead and his body is cold, and even then he'd probably just continue slashing and hacking away at Tom’s corpse until there’s nothing left.
Canonically, that is who Tom & Jerry are: evil fucks whose greatest ambition is to murder each other, and whose greatest frustration is that due to a series of violent mix-ups, this somehow never happens. Honestly, the only good thing that has ever come of Tom and Jerry is The Simpsons’ Itchy and Scratchy. The beloved television institution only needed to ramp up the cartoonish uber-violence of Tom and Jerry ever so slightly to veer into brutal, savage parody.
That’s not who Tom and Jerry are in Tom and Jerry: Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, however. Oh sure, that’s how they’re introduced, but as soon as they meet, and befriend Charlie Bucket, the film’s equally hunger-crazed little boy protagonist, they do a 180 and become this little boy’s guardian angels.
They even manage to liberate a box of Wonka bars they hope will aid Charlie in his quest to find one of five magical Golden tickets that provide entry for lucky candy-lovers inside eccentric candy-maker Willy Wonka’s magical factory. But when they present it to Charlie, who is fucking starving on account of capitalism, he nobly refuses to accept the gift because the bars do not belong to him.
At this point, if I were Tom or Jerry, I would tell this deluded slave to the free market, “Fuck capitalism. Fuck the bosses. Fuck a system that perpetrates savage iniquities. Fuck a system that starves children and rewards others nonsensically. Fuck Willy Wonka and every capitalist pig bleeding the proletariat dry. The masses will feast upon the sweet flesh of tyranny when the revolution comes and Willie Wonka will be first to meet a firing squad. He will choke on an everlasting Gobstopper called Truth."
But Tom and Jerry do not say that. In fact, they do not say anything at all, although when they really want to communicate, they do so via pointing and drawing. So they’re able to communicate, and understand human language, but they do not speak words. As I have established here, I have no special love for Tom and Jerry. I have no love for Tom and Jerry whatsoever. But in a world where even the goddamn, motherfucking Mickey Mouse Clubhouse is a CGI abomination with CD-Rom level computer animation, I appreciated that the Tom and Jerry of Tom and Jerry: Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory are the adequately drawn and animated mediocrities of my childhood and not CGI distortions.
Tom and Jerry: Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory somehow takes over a half hour to make it to the motherfucking titular Chocolate Factory (first they have to go to the box factory), and while not every line of dialogue functions solely as exposition filling slow children in on the film’s unfolding plot on a minute-by-minute basis, that’s true of the vast majority of the dialogue, which, like the animation, and voice-acting and music, aspires only to bland competency, and comes short even of that.
Tom and Jerry: Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory really drives home what a sick fucking story Dahl wrote. The book is a scathing depiction of capitalism, consumption, and television (AKA the three cornerstones of English and American life) as crazy-making and obsessive, utterly amoral and pitched shamelessly at exploiting humanity’s ugliest hungers and compulsions.
With the exception of Charlie, the children here are so monstrous and unhinged that we root for their suffering and comeuppance, for them to end up on the receiving end of Schadenfreude, despite them being, you know, children. Tom and Jerry: Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory not surprisingly has no idea how to handle the story’s darkness and that’s about eighty percent of it. It doesn’t matter if you follow the 1971 version beat by beat, as this often does, if you get everything underneath egregiously wrong.
It takes the movie about twenty minutes, after the character’s introduction, for example, to figure out that pretty much everything Wonka says drips with poisonous sarcasm, and a level of misanthropy that borders on pathological. After a certain point, however, it becomes impossible to depict Wonka as anything other than a deranged sociopath who greets the dramatic suffering of small children with a bored yawn.
But by focusing on Charlie and Tom and Jerry, the movie ends up downplaying and evading both the awfulness of the children surrounding Charlie and Wonka’s own malevolence as a hypocritical misanthrope and secret moralist who seems to despise the miniature people who purchase his products and for good reason.
Ah, but what of Tom and Jerry, you ask? Good question! Once inside the fantastical Chocolate factory, Tom and Jerry join forces with Tuffy, a talking mouse with ambitions of someday growing tall enough to be an Oompah Loompa to take down Slugsworth, a malevolent competitor of Wonka’s who promises Charlie a life of luxury if he’ll just give him a single everlasting gobstopper from Wonka’s factory.
Tuffy is the Jar Jar Binks of Tom and Jerry: Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, although given the nature of the project, he’s more of a Scrappy Doo figure. In the grand tradition of “breakout” characters children theoretically love and that adults want to murder with hammers, Tuffy is a big-eyed, sassy dreamer full of spunk who just begs to be merchandised and marketed.
Tuffy’s ability to talk raises troubling questions. Can other animals talk in this universe? If Tuffy can talk, why can’t Tom or Jerry? And why does a film with so much unnecessary plot, and two egregiously unnecessary lead characters in Tom and Jerry (three if you add Tuffy) constantly seem to be scrambling to fill out 79 minutes? Even with songs?
Will Tuffy, who is voiced by the same woman who initially gave life to Space Jam’s Lola Bunny, appear in further direct to video Tom and Jerry movies? Will Tom and Jerry: Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory be followed by similar projects like Tom and Jerry: The Diary of Anne Frank, Tom and Jerry: 12 Angry Men or Tom and Jerry: Antichrist? I do not know, nor do I care. I entered this weird, sad zone of calculation and crappiness solely because you made me and now I am excited to get the fuck out forever.
Unless Declan gets into Tom and Jerry of course, but it is my job as his father as well as an animation-lover to make sure that doesn’t happen.
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