My two children have recently discovered Tom & Jerry with a near-maniacal vengeance. And by maniacal, I mean THIS SHOW IS ALWAYS ON. I come down in the morning for breakfast, and it's on. I come home from a long day at work, and it's on. Weekends, lunchtime, dusk --- these children are into this show.
This obsession with cat-and-mouse games is different from other cartoon fixations. There was Scooby-Doo, which was intense but mercifully brief ("The bad guys here ALWAYS get caught," sniffed my 4-year-old daughter in dismissal). There was also Space Ghost, which led to a whole bunch of bad Gary Owens impersonations around the house but also died away after a short while. Care Bears continues to rear its nasty head now and again, but its hold on children is undeniable. The kids absolutely stop dead what they're doing to watch.
"I really like Care Bears, Dad, but PLEASE don't tell anyone that I do," pleaded my 7-year-old son. No worries, Declan! Your secret is safe with me.
Christmas is a mixed bag. The Rankin/Bass cartoons retain their power, and Keenan Wynn in particular is off the hook as the Winter Warlock in "Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town". I get creeped out everytime a drunken-sounding Mickey Rooney invites some small child from Sombertown to come sit on his lap, though. BUT -- I really dig the groovy psychedelia of Mrs. Claus' solo song when she unties the bun in her hair and discovers her sexuality in "My Love Is Beginning Today". You're darn right your love is beginning today! I love them redheads.
Unfortunately, there's also the "Home Alone" series, which have captivated my children to the point where I recently received a formal pitch from Declan to put the first "Home Alone" on stage, starring himself as Kevin and me in the Daniel Stern role. Read into that what you will.
But I digress. Even in these holiday times, when I try to shove "Olive The Other Reindeer" and "Emmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas" down these poor children's throats, it is "Tom And Jerry" that they return to. As a result, I have watched more "Tom & Jerry" than I ever did as a child. So....I have formed some definite thoughts on this long-beloved cartoon.
From what I can suss out from Comcast's helpful On Demand synopses, the first Tom & Jerry cartoons made their debut around the early 1940s. They were produced and directed by two young and hungry Italians named Willie Hanna and Joey Barbera. These first pieces establish the timeless themes of chase, deception, and the giant lump growing out of an injured animal's head after receiving a direct blow from a baseball bat, golf club, or claw hammer.
The basic plot of these early pieces revolve around the feet and yellow dress of Aunt Jemima, who rules her household with an iron fist while her massa is gone from the house. She scolds her perpetually lazy cat (Tom) for not chasing the only mouse in the house (Jerry) while eating the unseen Massa out of house and home. Her voice, which used to scream "Thomas!" with mammy-like gusto, has now sadly been overdubbed in 2009. As a result, Tom's fear of being discovered by Hattie McDaniel has sadly diminished to being discovered by Michelle Obama. And believe you me, Hattie could kick the everlovin' SHIT out of our current First Lady.
By the 1950s, Willie "The Weasel" Hanna and Joey "The Shark" Barbera had grown bored with racism and zoot suits, and discovered the concept of the "cute sidekick". This concept, which would manifest itself twenty years later in the form of Zan & Jana and Scrappy-Doo, was first born in Tom & Jerry. These early cute sidekicks took the form of a French-speaking mouse clad in a cloth diaper, or a Donald Duck sound-alike bird, or a mute fish with super air-breathing gills and the ability to wield a weapon with its powerful fish tail. But the themes of these later cartoons veered too much toward the maudlin, and lacked the Mafia-style violence of the 40s.
By the late 50s, it was clear that Hanna & Barbera were moving operations from animals and their dangerous games to the wacky adventures of nuclear families in both the Stone Age (The Flintstones) and the Space Age (The Jetsons). So they turned the reins over to a demented, crazy man named Charles Jones, who was better known as "Chuck" in the opium dens and brothels of LA. Jones removed any pretense of friendship from Tom & Jerry's relationship. These two now became mortal fucking enemies, and the stakes and methods of killing and torture rose exponentially. "Tom & Jerry is scary now," whimpers my daughter Jessie whenever a Chuck Jones version comes on the tube. Get tough, girl! Cats don't LIKE mice!
The 70s saw Tom & Jerry become FRIENDS, and fight enemies like Martians, dogs and gangsters. Stupid, and unworthy of your time. The 80s and 90s Tom & Jerry cartoons have not been shown yet on Comcast On Demand. They must really be lousy (if they even exist).
Now a brand new Tom & Jerry is on the WB Network, and they are back to being enemies. This is a welcome development, but they need to get back to the basics of the house and the backyard as a setting. NO ONE is going to buy Tom & Jerry chasing each other inside a rocket ship, or a king's carriage, or a landfill. Sure, there are all kinds of cool weapons, but the human element is missing. That's what the Italian maestros Hanna & Barbera understood.
So overall, Tom & Jerry is a seminal piece of work that has given us some of the best (and worst) of wholesome cartooing for youngsters.
My kids would give this entire series an A+. I'm a little tougher, so I'm going with a B+.
-Mike Beyer, Eric Roach, Anderson Lawfer