Judge Sandra Dozier was happily surprised by this excellent new feature featuring two of her favorite classic cartoon characters.
Discover life and laughs on Mars in the new feature-length movie starring Earth's favorite cat and mouse!
If I am perfectly honest, I wasn't expecting much from this DVD. I have seen Looney Tunes Reality Check, after all…my faith in Warner Brothers to do right by their classic cartoon characters is about as sturdy as a wet Kleenex. That's why I was pleasantly surprised by Bill Kopp's treatment of Tom and Jerry in Tom and Jerry Blast Off to Mars. Kopp, who is probably best known for his Eek! the Cat cartoon series, is credited as the writer and director for this feature, and deserves more credit than that for providing a solidly entertaining, old-school Tom and Jerry adventure.
Facts of the Case
There's a cat named Tom and a mouse named Jerry who have been at each other's throats for the better part of sixty years. Tom is single-minded in his pursuit of Jerry, a wily little mouse who thinks on his feet and generally ends up getting the better of Tom. It isn't that Tom is a complete idiot, but he isn't the sharpest tool in the shed, either, and once he sets his mind on nabbing Jerry, he's blind to what's going on around him—and that means he can get himself into some downright boneheaded situations.
The duo generally destroy anything in their general vicinity as they fight, and the gag of the original series is that the more opulent their surroundings, the more they would destroy. Expensive-looking vase? Shattered into a million pieces. A sumptuous dinner spread? Scattered to the floor. An elegant chandelier? Not long for this world. The rapid-fire damage and injury (usually to Tom) provided steady belly laughs for the audience. Occasionally, a cranky dog named Spike would enter the picture, usually as a foil for Tom, who was easily tricked into being the patsy when Jerry would wake Spike from a deep sleep or steal his dinner bone and leave Tom holding the goods.
Tom and Jerry Blast Off to Mars wisely retains the formula that made the original series so successful, with one sight gag after another to keep the audience entertained. The basic plot of the story is that Tom chases Jerry into a military hangar where a manned mission to Mars is being launched. They get themselves on board and then get themselves stranded on Mars when the astronauts, unaware that they had stowaways in the first place, return to Earth.
The two get separated (when Tom gets squished by a huge, mysteriously familiar monolith) and Jerry happens to meet a race of tiny Martians who take him in after mistaking him for a great leader. Later, Tom blunders into their tiny city, unwittingly destroying their downtown area and causing an interplanetary conflict when the citizens realize Tom and Jerry are actually Earthlings and think they are being invaded. As the Martians race off to destroy Earth, Tom has to team up with Jerry in order to warn someone back home about what is coming for them.
I knew I was going to be a happy, happy camper within the first five minutes, which consisted of the following painful injuries being visited on Tom: His head is pushed into his torso by an ironing board falling from an open cabinet, he falls head first into a toaster, he is trapped in a dishwasher on the heavy-duty cycle, a bucket is stuck on his head, and once outside he is shaved bare by a passing airplane (you'll just have to see it to understand), sling-shot through a tree, tricked into eating Spike's bone, forcibly made to return said bone, and dragged behind a lawn mower on a skateboard. Jerry gets away with merely being spun on the ceiling fan at high speed and going splat against the wall, which just puts him in an excellent position to dump a heavy jar of cookies on Tom's head.
Now, that's what I'm talking about. Plus, Tom and Jerry don't speak. It was always too creepy for words when some of the classic episodes had Tom talking. The show is at its best when they don't talk and when the music and sound effects tell the story, as they do in this new feature. Tom makes a few human-like sounds, including gasps, grunts, and the occasional scream, but that always worked well in the original series, too. This was one of many old-school touches. Another nod to classic Tom and Jerry is that the two work cooperatively for part of the movie. The essential psychology of Tom is that he really wouldn't know what to do if he ever actually caught Jerry. Similarly, Jerry will inflict sadistic torture on Tom but would never actually let him get killed. So, in the classic series, whenever backed against a wall, the two would always team up, with the understanding that things would get "back to normal" whenever the shared threat passed. There's a great blink-and-you'll-miss-it homage to this mindset when Tom reaches into a hole, grabs a jelly statue of Jerry, and is horrified to pull back a hand full of red goo. He breaks down in tears until he sees the real Jerry, at which point his expression instantly changes to rage and the chase is on again.
Old and new gags are meshed beautifully in Blast Off. Classic expressions (Tom's puckered sneer, Jerry's wide-eyed delight) and body language are done to perfection, and even new touches (like Tom flexing his claws with Freddy Kruger-esque drama in order to scare Jerry, or an extreme close-up on a dumbfounded Jerry) are completely in-character. The slapstick and sight gags are also a joy to watch—never obvious, they flash by in the blink of an eye amid all the other action. For instance, at one point one of the astronauts goes outside the craft to fix something, and because he's essentially a coward he is protesting the whole time. As he sails down the length of the ship he floats by a pie cooling in a window. I had to rewind to make sure I saw what I thought I saw—it isn't obvious, and it's onscreen for about a second before he's onto something new. There are dozens of sight gags like this, seeming afterthoughts that get big laughs from kids and adults alike.
Which brings me to my chief gripe about some of the modern updates I've seen to classic cartoons. They are so obvious, as if kids can't possibly get a sight gag unless you make it the only thing on screen, and then maybe have one of the characters refer to it just to be sure. Kids aren't dummies, and their visual acuity is pretty sharp—that stuff is more likely to slip by me now, as an adult, than it did when I was a kid. Refreshingly, Tom and Jerry Blast Off to Mars understands this, and it packs each scene with as much eye candy, color, and set dressing as it can without overwhelming the central story or action. In one scene, Jerry tricks Tom into entering a centrifuge, which he then sets to spinning at high speed. Tom is first pinned to the chair, then pushed into it, face peeled back comically, and then the module he is in breaks off its mooring and careens around the room, finally coming to a stop and spilling Tom in a little cat puddle on the floor. He remains there for a heartbeat, blinking (only his eyes are still recognizable), before snapping back to his regular shape, ready for revenge.
The superlative nature of the main feature is further underscored by an unfortunate extra included with this DVD, a National Geographic short (about seven minutes in length) called "Tom and Jerry's Martian Mission." Whereas the feature cartoon ignored all the laws of space and conditions on Mars (characters could breathe in space, for instance, until it became a funny opportunity to torture Tom by having him get sucked out a broken porthole), this short cartoon is an attempt to showcase some facts about Mars. The only problem is that it goes all over the map, spending only a few sections touching on a plethora of subjects without ever going in depth into any one of them. We get some random facts about Mars thrown at us, then a lame musical number, then more random facts. Just as something gets interesting, such as the mention of people in Canada who are trying to simulate Mars-like conditions, they move onto something else. Plus, the animation is just awful. It is merely a series of reused bits and cookie-cutter expressions for Tom and Jerry, who alternate between them with bird-like jerkiness. There's a kid who appears to them as a hologram (for whatever reason) and dispenses the Mars factoids. Despite some game voice acting for the part of the teen hologram, nothing could make this random group of info sound bytes seem interesting.
The other featurettes are much better. "Blasting Off" is a family-friendly look at the animation process, featuring interviews with Bill Kopp and the voice talent. Speaking of voice talent, there are some big names working on Tom and Jerry Blast Off to Mars. Jeff Glen Bennett, who has a thousand voices (he does a perfect imitation of David Hyde Pierce for the series Ozzy and Drix and played Yosemite Sam in Looney Tunes Back in Action) appears, as well as the deep tones of Everybody Loves Raymond alum Brad Garrett as Commander Bristle, the head honcho for the Mars project; also appearing are consummate animal voice actor Frank Welker (as Spike, natch), Tom Kenny, better known as Spongebob Squarepants, and über-talented Billy West, who recreates his "Mr. Pipe" voice from Ren and Stimpy for the role of Major Biff Buzzard, and does a handful of other roles as well (including the Martian ruler). The second featurette, "Step-by-Step with Tom and Jerry" is a closer look at the animation process, with writer-director Bill Kopp and producer Tom Minton talking over animatics, pencil sketches, and finally the color-treated versions of two sequences in the movie.
As this is a recent (2004) production, the animation and sound are both excellent quality. In fact, the animation is so super-glossy and clean that at first I was taken aback by it. It takes a couple of minutes to get used to seeing such a clear Tom and Jerry cartoon if you are used to the classic series, which is often grainy and dark. Here, the colors are bright and varied, with the Mars landscape looking especially vibrant, as animators gleefully ignored all the "rules" of what it should look like and drenched the landscape and sky in just about any color you can imagine. As someone says in the featurette, "it's no longer the Red Planet, it's the Psychedelic Planet!" Sound is also nice and clear, with a 5.1 surround track that is lively but not remarkable. Sound is fairly evenly separated into all the front channels, with background noise noticeable only in the space flight sequences.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I miss Tom's signature scream, although I know they can't do much about it, since the original voice actor John Stephenson was not involved with the production. Bill Kopp does a good job of filling in Tom's gasps and screams for this feature, but there's nothing like that appalled exclamation from the classic shorts.
Otherwise, there is precious little to complain about. The only baffling element of this DVD is the seven-minute "Tom and Jerry's Martian Mission" extra, and by its very nature as an extra, I don't really feel like the value of this DVD is diminished by it. Merely avoid wasting your time with it, and everything is peachy.
Tom and Jerry Blast Off to Mars is a winner, and the price makes it a good value. Fans who loved the classic series will definitely want to give this one a look to see how a modern update should be done. Having a formula isn't always a bad thing—if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
No jury would convict—Tom and Jerry are free to go!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• "Tom and Jerry's Martian Mission" National Geographic Short
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