Years ago, there was a cartoon cat named Tom and a cartoon mouse named Jerry, and they would chase each other, often resulting in Tom stumbling upon some horrible mutilation, pitiful embarrassment, or possibly both. Sometimes a horribly un-PC mammy character would pop by and, in a thick mammy accent, scold Tom for getting into trouble. One time, Tom just up and went straight to hell.
I mention all of this because little by little, all of this is being erased. It started when Hanna-Barbera attempted to revive the animated duo for television in the 1960s and 70s, and it was decided to let these bickering characters become friends. Like the arrival of Shemp or Curly Joe, the first sign of Tom and Jerry getting along was code to kids: we're sorry, but this next cartoon is really gonna stink. Then, in 1992, following another revival of the characters on TV (this time in the form of the lame "Tom and Jerry Kids"), we got "Tom and Jerry: The Movie," which committed the worst sin of all by allowing the cat and mouse (best friends) to talk. Ugh. (Plus, the movie was just flat-out awful.)
Ah, but that's not all of it. As the rise of home video and cable television allowed the classic cartoon shorts to be seen by new generations, somebody somewhere decided to protect us from ourselves and erase all the parts of history nobody likes. The mammy's voice has been replaced by a more modern, neutral, less offensive dialect for the cartoons' reruns on basic cable. Some of the more violent cartoons have been selected to never be re-released at all. And in the UK, there's talk of editing out shots of characters smoking. Because if you edit something away, you can pretend it never happened, and you won't have to have any conversations with your children about anything.
The good news, then, is that somebody at Warner Brothers has realized that hey, if we're going to revive the characters yet again, this time for a string of direct-to-video movies, maybe we should ignore all the bad ideas that have cropped up over the decades and go back to basics. Sure, we'll spice things up for today's audiences, and of course we'll avoid any of the ugly race issues that plague the old stuff, because now we know better, and heck, maybe we can even toss in some modernized animation techniques, the kind that makes all those other traditionally animated cartoons look so slick. Oh, and let's make sure Tom and Jerry remain their wonderful mute selves - until Tom needs to let out that gloriously high-pitched yelp of pain, that is.
The third in this new series is "Tom and Jerry in Shiver Me Whiskers," an attempt to ride along with the pirate craze that's sweeping the nation. (A pirate-themed Scooby-Doo movie is due this fall from Warners.) And whaddya know, it's actually pretty funny.
We meet our old pals as they're serving as mates on the ship of Red Pirate Ron. They discover a treasure map, cause a bit of a scuffle between Ron and his brothers (colored blue and purple, for easy identification), wind up on a mysterious island, and try to outwit a talking skull (voiced by Mark Hamill!) to earn the treasure of the Spanish Main.
Wisely, all of this is just one long excuse for Tom to chase/be chased by Jerry. An early comic bit is an extended battle that reminds us why we loved the old cartoons in the first place; they're delirious and manic and slapsticky in all the right places, truly capturing the spirit of the characters. Obviously, you can't keep a six minute idea going for seventy minutes, so chases often have to be put on hold - which doesn't cause the film to lose too much steam until the finale, an overdone series of tasks and puzzles presented by the talking skull, which play out more like a set-up to a video game than a decent movie. More slapstick appears throughout, and Hammill's deliciously goofy accent keeps us going, but still, it's a few minutes too long.
The rest of the film (the non-chase parts, that is) benefits from a witty script from Chris Painter, whose obligations to throw in hip, modern jokes for the grown-ups (one lame line mentions tax deductions or some such) are light enough that they don't interfere with the better, sillier ideas, like the running gag that has pirates communicating by varying their pronunciation of "yaaaarrrrr." This is a movie that knows instinctively that pirates are funny, and Tom getting flattened like a pancake is funny, so let's just step back and let funny things happen. (A terrific voice cast, which also includes Wallace Shawn, Charles Nelson Reilly, Kathy Najimy, and Kevin Michael Richardson, lends to the movie's nifty use of comic timing.)
Not all the gags work, and the inclusion of an actual storyline keeps the film from reaching the absurd heights of the original cartoons, but as far as updated versions of cherished childhood favorites go, "Shiver Me Whiskers" could've been a lot worse. We're lucky that the filmmakers have as much respect for the characters and understanding as to why they work as they do. "Shiver Me Whiskers" is no replacement for the classics, but it's still earns plenty of giggles.
In a disappointing move, Warner Brothers' disc of "Shiver Me Timbers" contains no chapter stops. Granted, the film is only 71 minutes, but still. Yaaarrrrr.
Is there any surprise that brand new animation looks as good as it does, with colors popping in all the right ways? Of course not. The solid transfer even brings the best out of the lush, faux-watercolor backgrounds, a nice touch. Presented in its original 1.33:1 full screen format.
There's nothing fancy about the Dolby 5.1 surround track, but there's not a single thing wrong with it, either.
"Where Be They Now?" is a cute, brief (three and a half minutes) cartoon that reveals the fates of all the characters. Not funny enough to make it into the movie, but funny enough for a look or two.
"The Animation Process" compares final footage of an early chase sequence with footage of storyboards and rough animation sketches. The intent is to show a from-start-to-finish timeline of cartooning, but with no narration and a running time just shy of two minutes, there's not much that this can do.
A handful of trailers for other Warner DVD releases round out the set.
Of course you should pick up the two Tom and Jerry Spotlight Collection releases first. That said, "Shiver Me Whiskers" has enough chuckles in it that it comes Recommended to families and fans alike. Yaaarrrrr!!