A Year in Shorts Day 115: "Mouse Trouble"
Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that I’m a pretty big fan of the animated comedy duo known as Tom and Jerry. (If you haven’t noticed, don’t worry; I’ve been pretty subtle about it.) Still, despite my ever abiding love for the pair, I haven’t yet covered a truly great Tom and Jerry short yet. The closest I’ve come so far was Jerry’s Cousin, and I still managed to find things to nitpick about that one. But there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for this, of course. You see, when you cover a truly great series, you have to grade each individual entry on a curve. For instance, an average episode of Frasier might be better than a great episode of most other sitcoms, but you still have to acknowledge that it’s an average episode of Frasier. And that leads us to today’s short, Mouse Trouble. It’s a lot better than your average cartoon. But is it better than your average Tom and Jerry short? Let’s find out!
Unlike the last Tom and Jerry short we covered, 1944's Mouse Trouble (once again directed by Joseph Hanna and William Barbera) has a blessedly straightforward premise. Tom gets a book on how to catch mice in the mail and decides to put it to good use. As you can expect, things go pretty poorly for Tom. What follows is some classic Tom and Jerry hijinks, structured around Tom working his way through the book's various chapters.
That structure is a bit of a blessing and a curse for this short. On the one hand, it's the perfect premise for some cartoon mayhem, providing the short with just enough of a spine to build its story around while still allowing for a lot of freedom. But it does become a bit predictable after awhile, with the short developing a pretty steady rhythm. The best Tom and Jerry shorts have a freewheeling, chaotic feeling to them, with the cat and mouse game being largely built around moves and countermoves. Mouse Trouble, by contrast, feels episodic, which isn't helped by the fact that each vignette ends with an iris out. That's how you end a cartoon for Pete's sake!
Of course, all that is a secondary concern as to whether or not the short is funny. And thankfully, it is! Admittedly, some of the jokes hit better than others; the wind-up mouse doll bit, for instance, goes on for a bit too long, and the punchline involves a mouth full of broken teeth, which I find a lot more wince-inducing than funny. Of course maybe I just don't find it funny because the mouse toy is a reference to Mae West, whom I don't find funny in general.
But for the most part the short is pretty damn funny. Mouse Trouble is filled with acts of absurd cartoon violence that we've come to expect from Tom and Jerry, and you can't ask for much more than that. And in addition to all that, this short includes one of my all time favorite Tom and Jerry bits. As Tom has Jerry cornered, he finds a chapter in the book which informs him that a cornered mouse never fights back. Tom dives into the fray and an off-screen fight ensues, resulting in... well, you've probably seen it.
I honestly don't even know why I find this joke so funny. Apparently it's a reference to a radio show of the same name, which obviously I don't get. I've spoken out about reference humor before, arguing that it's rarely very funny and often results in a terribly dated film. And yet I think this joke manages to be an exception to the rule. The reference is so dated and obscure that it doesn't even feel like a reference to anything; it just comes across as a total non sequitur. I honestly think that this joke is a thousand times funnier now than it would have been back when the short was released. What was once just a dumb reference becomes something transcendently weird, and the Internet is all the better for it.
But while the short is very funny, there's a couple of things about it that bother me a little. While I'm usually a sucker for a Tom and Jerry score, I find Scott Bradley's music a little overbearing in this one. And I can't help but feel like there's something off about the animation in this one. We're long past the early days of Tom and Jerry where that made sense, and I don't remember thinking the same thing about Yankee Doodle Mouse (which was released a year before, winning the duo another Oscar!). I can't put it into words, but there's just something not quite right about how Tom and Jerry look in this one.
But at the end of the day, these are all nitpicks, and they can't take away from the fact that Mouse Trouble is still a damn good film. Mouse Trouble gave Tom and Jerry their fourth nomination and their second win, and it's not very hard to see why. Before embarking on our Year in Shorts, I considered this one of my favorites. It's slipped a bit in my estimation since then, but not very far. Although it is weird to write about a Tom and Jerry short and conclude by saying I don't think it deserved the Oscar that year. I would have given it to the Disney short How to Play Football instead. Now that's a classic!
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"Mouse Trouble" is available to watch on HBO Max.
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