Tom and Jerry: Spotlight Collection Review
Update, 19/5/2005: When I originally wrote this review, I had been advised that Warner were aware of the fact that three cartoons on this set were edited, and that they fully intended to re-press the faulty disc and set up a replacement problem. Warner have since stated that they have no intention of doing this, and it has emerged that (a) the cuts were probably actually intentional and (b) future installments in the Spotlight Collection will probably also be cut. To cut a long story short, I feel that Warner has once again shafted its (considerable) classic animation fan base, and I feel extremely guilty for urging readers to buy the set, despite cuts, and hold out for a replacement programme that has turned out to be nothing more than a bad joke. As a result, I feel I have no choice but to replace the "Film" and "Overall" ratings of this set with zeros, and to urge people not only not to buy it, but also to treat with serious caution any future releases in this line-up.
Virtually everyone in the Western world has heard of Tom and Jerry, and yet their antics have gone surprisingly unappreciated in recent years, with many passing them off as mechanincal children's entertainment with no deeper purpose other than to ellicit laughs through the systematic physical abuse of a long-suffering cat by a deceptively cute mouse. As it turns out, it would be fair to say that Tom and Jerry's ultimate goal is to entertain by virtue of its highly fantastical portrayal of violence, but that in itself is no bad thing, and those who are willing to look a little closer will quickly come to realize that this humour is a sort that completely ignores generational boundaries, appealling to both the young and the old. The product of an era that did not seek to classify all animation as babysitting material for pre-teens or as tie-ins for unimaginative toys (or both), Tom and Jerry represents a quality and style of cartoon entertainment that has been all but lost nowadays.
At the heart of these cartoons is the relationship between Tom and Jerry. While the concept of a cat chasing a mouse could hardly be more generic, what elevates it beyond its contemporaries at the Harman-Ising and Disney studios is the remarkably intelligent manner in which creators/directors William Hanna and Joseph Barbera approached their material. Although on a certain level the cartoons exist for no reason other than to provoke laughter, usually by maiming Tom in the most outrageous manner possible, the relationship between cat and mouse is a complex one. Tom loathes Jerry and will stop and nothing to catch him, and likewise Jerry will never allow Tom to live an easy life, but there is an unwritten rule that seems to be understood by cat, mouse and audience alike, and that is that Tom will never hurt Jerry. Likewise, Jerry might thrash Tom within an inch of his life, but there is never any implication that his injuries will be permanent. Indeed, he almost always gets up again, good as new, at the soonest possible scene transition. The audience understands that neither cat nor mouse will ever come to any real harm.
Newcomers to these cartoons - or those that have forgotten them since reaching that inevitable phase that so many teenagers go through whereby anything with which they identified as children is tossed aside and described as childish, or "gay", or (most likely) both - will probably be surprised by just how violent these cartoons can be. Knives, mouse traps and hammers are the weapons of choice, but firearms are not out of bounds, and dynamite quickly establishes itself as a favourite. In recent overly conservative times, this violence has met with a significant amount of condemnation from both ends of the political spectrum, and indeed at one point, when the characters were revived in the 1970s as part of a foul television series, they were portrayed as friends due to fears of parents protesting against their delicate children being exposed to such debauchery. However, moral outcries such as these quite blatantly ignore the ability of children to differentiate between the real and the imagined. Tom and Jerry's world is so stylized, so frenetic, so obviously cartoony that it could never be mistaken for reality, and as a result the attrocities that cat and mouse commit on-screen exist in a vacuum that has little, if anything, to do with real life.
The Tom and Jerry cartoons, produced during a period of 16 years that roughly encompassed the esteemed Golden Age of animation, were designed to be exhibited theatrically, each one running before a live action feature film (an excellent concept that has sadly gone the way of the dinosaur, despite various unsuccessful attempts to revive it by both Disney and Warner Bros). As such, they were designed not only for audiences comprised primarily of adults, but also to be seen only once, something that is forgotten when people attack the series for its repetitive nature. It is indeed true that a number of the shorts merely recycle the same gags over and over but, given the fact that Hanna and Barbera produced a total of 114 cartoons over the course of 16 years, without even dreaming of their efforts being screened more than once, they can probably be forgiven for running some of the same ideas through more than once. It is partly the inflexible nature of the format that makes it so enduring, and audiences can rest assured that, while the basic format will remain the same, the gags will continue to be imaginative and at times extremely unpredictable.
In this respect, the Tom and Jerry cartoons differ from their Looney Tunes counterparts, since while a number of different directors worked on the various Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck shorts, each of the original Tom and Jerry run was directed by Hanna and Barbera, resulting in a level of consistency unlike their Warner counterparts, but also a certain level of what some rather unkind individuals might refer to as stagnation. Throughout the series' 16-year run, Hanna and Barbera stuck rigidly to their original formula and cannot claim to have invented any new concepts. It would also be true to say that the later years represented a noticeable "falling off" in quality, with the violence losing much of its bite and the gags becoming more predictable. Of course, not all cartoons are created equal, but the difference between, for example, the frenetic, shamelessly brutal Mouse Trouble (Academy Award winner for the Best Short Subject/Cartoons category) and the more limp The Flying Sorceress (which in many ways predicts the dire Scooby Doo series in terms of subject matter, tone and stylization), is painfully obvious.
The series certainly went through an evolution in terms of design and pace, with some debate as to which "period" was the best. The early cartoons are noticeably more detailed than their later counterparts, with Tom given a semi-realistic look, sporting believable fur and reasonably accurate proportions, and are also much slower in pace. This contrasts with the look of the later cartoons, in which the designs became much more streamlined and flat - probably at least partly due to the nature of the Cinemascope ratio adopted for the final cartoons, which gave the animators less vertical room to draw. At this point, the pacing is still reasonably brisk, but a lot of the bite of the violence has been toned down to the point that the action is not as satisfying as in the earlier shorts. The middle period, my personal favourite, represents a compromise between the two different visual styles, and extremely fast, frantic and brutal timing, clearly demonstrating the influence of Tex Avery on his arrival at the MGM studio. In cartoons like Million Dollar Cat and Baby Butch, not a single second is wasted as Tom and Jerry barrel from one outrageous gag to the other, leaving the audience no time to catch its breath.
If these cartoons have an obvious flaw, beyond the understandable repetition of ideas, it is in the overuse of the duckling character that shows up, in various guises, throughout the series. Especially towards the end of the run, the duckling is used all too often as an overly cute source of ideas, rarely deviating from the idea of "kindly Jerry protects duckling from vicious Tom". Perhaps something of a reaction to criticism of Jerry being overly cruel towards Tom, the use of the duckling as a plot device shifts much of the blame on to Tom, which is overall less satisfying than the idea of Jerry, the villainous little squirt, provoking his larger, more slow-witted rival into action. Nevertheless, the Tom and Jerry shorts remain one of the highlights of the Golden Age of animation, and their timeless conconction of visual comedy shows that they will remain popular long after the likes of Scooby Doo and The Simpsons have faded from memory.
Tom and Jerry showed up on DVD earlier this year in the UK, in the form of the "Classic Collection", a series which released the cartoons in chronological order, but completely devoid of extras. Worse still, many of the cartoons had undergone various forms of censorship, usually to remove humour that was perceived as racist by Ted Turner's political correctness goons (click here to see my review of Volume 1 of this abomination). This Region 1 release, monikered the "Spotlight Collection", presents 40 selected cartoons from various points in the series' history, much like the Looney Tunes Golden Collection sets. This proves to be something of a cop-out, because it has allowed Warner to avoid many of the cartoons that are perceived as more racially contentious (the character of Mammy Two-Shoes, a cheerful black lady who served as a constant foil for Tom and became a firm fan favourite, hardly appears at all in this set), but the fact that this volume is rumoured to be the first of many suggests that Warner will eventually get round to releasing the more problematic shorts.
More troublesome is the fact that three of the cartoons in Disc 1, The Milky Waif, The Truce Hurts and The Little Orphan, are still cut, removing an entire scene from the former and individual gags from the latter two. Warner initially promised that they would set up a replacement programme, allowing customers to mail in the faulty disc and have it replaced with an uncut copy. As of May 2005, however, Warner have made it clear that they have no intention of correcting this fault, and indeed have strongly hinted that future releases in this collection will also be cut. It does not feel good to be lied to, and as a result I apologise for earlier urging readers to buy the set, despite cuts, and hold out for a replacement programme that has turned out to be nothing more than a bad joke.
All 40 cartoons are presented in their original aspect ratio - for the bulk of them, 1.37:1 non-anamorphic, although the final three films on Disc 2 are presented anamorphically in their original 2.35:1 (Cinemascope) ratio. This is something of a monumental moment, since it is to the best of my knowledge the first time the Cinemascope cartoons have been presented unmolested on home video, and viewing them with the entire image on display is a revelation indeed. The Cinemascope cartoons are far from the best of Tom and Jerry, but viewing them as they were meant to be seen does give you a new-found appeciation for them.
Image quality is variable throughout, with the newly restored Cinemascope cartoons looking absolutely fabulous, demonstrating remarkably clean prints and a superb level of detail with little in the way of artefacting. The rest are, as a whole, less impressive, with some looking reasonably good but others exhibiting some very annoying artefacts. All the cartoons exhibit film damage to some degree, but some are significantly worse than others, which is clearly visible even in the small screenshots on this page. The worst offenders are those that are, for some baffling reason, interlaced. There should be no need for this, because Tom and Jerry pre-dated video editing and should therefore have been entirely film-sourced. Bearing in mind that no previous DVD release included these interlaced transfers, one has to wonder what on earth Warner is playing at. The following cartoons are affected:
The Million Dollar Cat
The Milky Waif
The Invisible Mouse
Jerry and the Lion
The Hollywood Bowl
Cue Ball Cat
Two Little Indians
Furthermore, a handful of the shorts have been drastically over-filtered, which results in some noticeable erosion of the inked outlines of the animation. The worst offender by far is Kitty Foiled, with virtually every shot exhibiting severe smearing. Overall, the audio-visual presentation is adequate, but it is clear that Warner have not extended the same amount of effort to this release as they have to their own Looney Tunes collections.
All the cartoons feature their original mono soundtracks, presented in Dolby Digital 2.0, except Touché Pussy Cat, which was one of the few Tom and Jerrys to be recorded in stereo, and is presented in that form accordingly. As with the image quality, the fidelity of the sound varies radically between the different shorts. Generally they are perfectly intelligible if a little muffled. Given the relative lack of dialogue in these cartoons, the audio is not a major issue, and I suspect that they probably sound as good as they ever will.
Disc 1 kicks off its bonus features with three Audio Commentaries featuring animation historian and all-round expert Jerry Beck. Covering The Zoot Cat, Kitty Foiled and Heavenly Puss, Beck's delivery is a little dry and there are a number of blank spots as he tries to think of something to say, but overall these tracks are interesting and give some insight into the making of the cartoons.
How Bill and Joe met Tom and Jerry is a 27-minute documentary covering the history of the series, including its background, how Hanna and Barbera got into the animation business, how they split up the work of each cartoon, and how it all ended. Archive interviews with Barbera and the late Hanna, as well as more recent interviews with Jerry Beck and TV animation writer Earl Kress, are much appreciated.
Also included is a clip from the film Anchors Aweigh, which features a live action Gene Kelly interacting with an animated Jerry. This is very interesting to see as it shows the same techniques that were used to greater effect in Song of the South and again over 40 years later with Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. The effect here is obviously more primitive than what was later achieved, but it is fascinating to see this early prototype in action. However, it is somewhat disappointing that, outside of a fairly brief mention in the How Bill and Joe met Tom and Jerry documentary, no introduction exists to place this sequence in its proper context.
Disc 2 begins with Behind the tunes: the MGM orchestra, a 17-minute documentary covering the use of Scott Bradley's music throughout the series. Interspersed throughout the documentary are narrated comments taken from Bradley's writings, covering the reasons for his choice of tempo and instruments in various cartoons, which proove to be very illuminating.
Finally, Dangerous When Wet is an 8-minute sequence featuring animation of Tom and Jerry superimposed over live action footage of Esther Williams swimming. Interesting, but as was the case with the "Anchors Aweigh" sequence on Disc 1, it's a shame there's no introduction.
Bonus trailers are also included for other Tom and Jerry DVD releases, as well as Wacky Races: The Complete Series, the Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volumes 1 and 2, Top Cat, The Flintstones Season 2 and Codename: Kids Next Door.
The Tom and Jerry cartoons remain some of the all-time greatest examples of animation, but sadly, despite many false promises, Warner have once again shafted customers by using butchered cuts. There is absolutely no excuse for this pathetic treatment, and it points to a level of disdain held by Warner towards its customers that is completely out of order. As a result, this set cannot possibly get my recommendation, and I would urge customers to treat with serious caution any future animated releases from Warner.