It's no secret that Tom and Jerry is one of the cartoon world's most recognizable and enduring creations. The cat and mouse duo first appeared in 1940, immediately scoring big with audiences of all ages. Truth be told, Tom and Jerry had much in common with the other "big fish" in the animation pond, Looney Tunes: madcap comedy, violence, and even a fully orchestrated score. Additionally, the simple premise of pitting one character against another was hardly anything new, but it certainly proved to be a successful one. Created by the up-and-coming young team of William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, Tom and Jerry would eventually be eventually be graced by the presence of Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, and Friz Freleng (of Looney Tunes fame). Their hard work would stretch beyond commercial appeal, as several shorts won Academy Awards; even the series premiere, Puss Gets The Boot, was nominated.
The influence of the show would reach long after the series' best years, as evident in creations like The Simpsons' infamous cat and mouse duo, "Itchy and Scratchy". Heck, you'd be hard-pressed to find any serious lover of animation that didn't grow up watching Tom and Jerry, and for good reason: it was one of the most consistently funny and entertaining cartoons ever conceived. In all regards, the success of the show was in its simplicity. With only a handful of supporting characters (and a variety of locations, of course), the cat and mouse duo were usually left to their own devices. In true cartoon fashion, the violence was over-the-top and had no lasting effects. Fur was shorn, eyeballs were poked and teeth were broken, but things would be back to normal for the next scene. Although most cartoons of today would hardly be able to get away with this on a regular basis, it was Tom and Jerry's calling card.
Today, reruns of Tom and Jerry can be seen regularly on havens like The Cartoon Network, albeit in slightly abbreviated form. Although the violence has pretty much been left intact, the racial overtones and other "politically incorrect" bits found in classic episodes have been swept under the rug. For example, the stereotypical portrayal of blacks---from the character of "Mammy" to the numerous "blackface gags"---are nowhere to be found on TV. Other scenes that promote Native American and Asian stereotypes have also been censored. One could argue that such creations should never have been broadcast in the first place. However, the fact that these shorts were introduced during a very different social climate in America complicates the situation. No matter your opinion, these cartoons have long been hacked up and "sterilized" for your viewing enjoyment, 100% free of racial stereotypes and chock full of violence (just the way America likes it!). For this DVD release, Warner Bros. promised to present these cartoons in their original, uncut format. Sadly, a handful of them are not, and Warner has since backed off their original promise---as well as a second promise to fix their mistake. Not exactly a shining example of "quality control", is it?
There are good points to be found in nearly every other aspect of this release, though, including a fine remastering effort and a nice mix of bonus features. Although the package falls short of larger compilations like the massive Looney Tunes Golden Collection, it's a decent tribute to one of classic animation's best offerings. 40 of the original cartoons have been presented here in a quasi-chronological "best of" fashion, although this choice proves to be a bit baffling. Since the original show (which aired from 1940 to 1958) included a total of 114 episodes, why not present them in the exact order of their airing? Regardless of the presentation style, though, here's a list of the shorts:
Disc One: The 1940s
1. The Yankee Doodle Mouse* (1943)
Disc Two: The 1950s
1. Texas Tom (1950)
* = Indicates Academy Award-winning short
Before the technical aspects of the review are covered, there are a few other notes on the included set of shorts. For starters, the final three episodes on Disc Two have been presented in their original 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen aspect ratio, which is simply a great touch by Warner Bros.
The biggest problem with these shorts is that a few of them are actually the edited versions, specifically those found on the first disc. Warner has recently stated that they will offer replacement versions soon, crediting this mistake to a last-minute production error (not an intentional hack job). In any case, I'll be sure and keep you guys posted. Also, it's curious that none of the included shorts are ones that feature the character of "Mammy", Tom's owner. Other region releases have included such shorts, although the character has either appeared with a different voice or been removed altogether! Here's hoping that future volumes in this "Spotlight Collection" continue the trend of presenting these classic cartoons in their original, uncensored forms. Additionally, over half of these shorts are already available on DVD in smaller stand-alone compilations, including Greatest Chases and Hijinks and Shrieks (links to both releases are provided below for your convenience). Still, there are a number of new things that this 2-disc set brings to the table, making it a must-have for any serious fan of animation. With that said, let's see how this set stacks up, shall we?
Another highlight of this release was the terrific overall presentation, including a nice, simple set of anamorphically-enhanced widescreen menus (like the one seen above). Navigation was smooth and simple, and a helpful "play all" feature was also included for madcap marathon viewing. Each of the 20 shorts included on each disc have been presented without chapter stops, though at 7 minutes apiece you'll hardly notice. Bonus features have been presented in a 1.33:1 fullscreen aspect ratio and divided evenly on both discs. The packaging is also excellent, following the trend of other Hanna Barbera collections: both discs are housed in a nicely-designed digipak case with a slick-looking acetate slipcover. Just a sidenote: the interior of the packaging features blueprint drawings like the ones seen in "Designs on Jerry". It's touches like this that really make a set stand out.
Moving on, we're also treated to an excellent featurette entitled How Bill and Joe Met Tom and Jerry (35 minutes). Among other topics, this piece goes into detail about the history of the cartoon's creation by William Hanna and Joseph Barbara (Bill and Joe, of course). It also gives us a brief look at some early character designs (seen below), and also discusses how the art style simplified over the years. A number of new and vintage interviews are also featured here, including chats with Hanna and Barbera themselves (sadly, Hanna passed away in 2001, while Barbera is now in his 90s). Overall, it's a great look at the history of the cartoon, though I'd have liked for it to be even longer. Rounding out the first disc is the famous short Anchors Aweigh, featuring Jerry the Mouse and Gene Kelly in a dancing frenzy. This was an early attempt---at least on a major scale---to combine live-action and animation into one presentation, and it looks pretty good for its age.
Disc Two sadly doesn't contain any commentaries, but there's another great featurette entitled Behind the Tunes: The MGM Orchestra (17 minutes). This piece discusses the unique role that the orchestra played in the overall effectiveness of Tom and Jerry, as it did in shorts like Looney Tunes and Disney's animated efforts. Although this featurette didn't provide as much overall detail as the first, it works from a historical perspective and is definitely worth a look. Also here is the Dangerous When Wet short (starring Esther Williams), an underwater mix of live-action and animation in the style of "Anchors Aweigh". It's also worth noting that the documentary on Disc One briefly touches on both of these shorts, so make sure and keep an eye out for them.
Overall, this was a fine little set of bonus features, and certainly enough for most 2-disc releases. Still, it would be nice to have more commentaries for these episodes, either by Jerry Beck or remaining members of the production team. While I'd have loved to see a full-blown 4-disc set in the style of the Golden Collection, you can bet that future volumes of Tom and Jerry: The Spotlight Collection will have more bonus features to offer. Additionally, the low price of this 2-disc set really makes this a well-rounded package for the dollar, so I really can't complain.
With 40 classic shorts to its name, there's no argument that this 2-disc Spotlight Collection provides a lot of bang for the buck. Although I'd have loved to see a more complete package of episodes and bonus materials (as well as the shorts in true chronological order), this easily-digestible blend of classic cartoons belongs on the shelf of any self-respecting fan of animation. Additionally, the excellent remastering effort also deserves special mention, as these vintage shorts have never looked better. If Warner Bros. would have gone the uncut route, I'd recommend it more highly. Still, this collection is still a decent effort by Warner Bros. and easily worth the price of admission. Go forth and purchase, or I'll hit you with a bat. Recommended.
Randy Miller III is a moderately affable art instructor hailing from Harrisburg, PA. To fund his DVD viewing habits, he also works on freelance graphic design and illustration projects. In his free time, Randy enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.