Tom and Jerry: A Nutcracker Tale (2007)

I jokingly apologized to Lindsay while starting this. After all, it's a direct-to-video Tom and Jerry movie from 2007 based on The Nutcracker clocking in at just under an hour: every one of those details is a red flag that this will be awful. Seriously, by all rights this should be borderline unwatchable. Really, no logical way this could in any way be redeemable.

Right? RIGHT?

Well, apparently my understanding of the metaphysical laws governing our reality is less foolproof than I imagined, because this thing was kind of great. More than that, it was great for what would have been the last reasons I'd have expected, if the possibility had even crossed my mind (which, again, it hadn't).

The Tom and Jerry stuff is fine but ultimately unremarkable, save for the fact it's barely an afterthought. Sure, there are sequences of zany, cartoon violence, but it's a fairly small part of the film. The bulk of this, and the reason it's good is....

Actually, it's kind of a spoiler. So, before I go on, if you enjoy fantasy animation, consider stopping here until you've had a chance to see this.

There are a few areas this shines, none of which have anything to do with its titular stars. In fact, the bulk of this could have done without them, and it would have been even better. Because this isn't really a farcical cartoon; it's a fantasy adventure. And the thing that most impresses me is the world-building.

Yes. You read that right. The fantasy world-building in this Tom and Jerry cartoon is fantastic. Conceptually, I think it's the most intriguing version of a fantasy reimagining of The Nutcracker I've come across.

That's not to say it's the best looking: The Nutcracker Fantasy holds on to that crown. But the ideas defining the world of this movie are, in my opinion, more imaginative and evocative, and they build off concepts from the source material better. This takes the music (and to a lesser extent story) of the ballet and transforms them into a fantasy kingdom in ways somewhat reminiscent of Fantasia (with the caveat the animation here isn't anywhere near the same league).

The tone has a dreamlike quality that compliments the setting and premise, which... I should probably get to, right?

This opens by establishing that Jerry loves the Nutcracker and wishes he could dance. After watching the show conclude its final performance of the year, his wish is granted: he's transformed into a ballet dancer dressed as the Nutcracker Prince, and the stage turns into a magical world modeled on the show. Toys come alive, including a ballet doll.

Meanwhile, we learn that outside the theater a "Cat King" has taken over as leader of the local cats, including Tom. They burst in and we're informed through narration the magic doesn't discriminate: they, too, are transformed by the magic into soldiers. They take over quickly and capture the toys, despite Jerry's efforts.

Jerry, his ward, Tuffy, a horse on wheels, and what's essentially an Elf on the Shelf escape to seek out "The Toymaker," whose existence they infer from the tags in the toys. Meanwhile, Tom is sent on a mission by the Cat King to seek out and assassinate Jerry.

The world they inhabit is large, but not infinite. Occasionally they reach the edge of various realms (to borrow a term from Disney's attempt). These boundaries are flat backdrops the characters tear through. It's a clever blending of the realities of a stage show with the illusion it elicits.

As you'd expect, the realms (some of which are glimpsed only briefly) are inspired by songs and dances from the ballet, which play as the characters confront obstacles challenging their limitations as toys. 

The heroes suffer and sacrifice throughout, until they finally reach the Toymaker (Santa, of course), who provides Jerry with an army of toy soldiers he uses to reclaim his kingdom.

The story is simple, of course, but that hardly matters. The world pulls you in, aided of course by every adaptation's ace in the hole (the music is great). I started out certain I'd find the toys obnoxious (particularly that elf), but by the end I found myself emotionally invested in their arcs. This isn't complex writing, but it all works here. The combination of tone, music, and the evocative setting sell it. This is good filmmaking.

That's not to say this is flawless. The ideas and designs are beautiful, but the animation is still 2007 video quality. As good as the concept is, the actual execution looks cheap. I didn't find this a deal breaker, but it's worth noting.

In addition, the Tom and Jerry shenanigans are, as always, more violent than funny. They keep this stuff to a minimum, but occasionally they remind you that Itchy and Scratchy is a parody of this for a reason.

The cats, in general, always feel wrong as villains for this film. They're clearly here to justify doing this as a Tom and Jerry film, and that's not really enough.

But on the whole the good far outweighs the bad. And perhaps there is an explanation as to why: this was the last movie Joseph Barbera was directly involved in, and the movie is dedicated to his memory. I don't know for sure whether that inspired the directors and crew to put in the extra effort, but for whatever reason, the end result is surprisingly good. It shocks me that I'm recommending a direct-to-video Tom and Jerry Nutcracker homage, but if you're a fan of fantasy, this is absolutely worth your time.