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"Garfield: The Movie" - I Hate Easy Paydays

With the arrival of the Scooby Doo movies, it was just a matter of time before America’s favorite cat clawed his way on screen. Yes, Garfield the sarcastic, gluttonous, and lovable cat celebrated 25 years of comics, cartoons, and merchandising with his motion picture debut. The film started modestly at the box office, but thanks to a big international boost became a respectable hit. It is a film calculated to offend no one, but unfortunately delights only a select few.

ImageIt strikes one that recently a movement seems to be underway in Hollywood to return to making kids’ films for kids and kids only. A few years ago Scooby Doo and Disney’s Lilo & Stitch became huge hits with silly fun for the kids and edgy innuendo for the adults. However this year’s Scooby Doo 2 and Disney’s Home on the Range were largely devoid of any sort of edge. Garfield: The Movie looks to continue this trend with a film that is unflinchingly wholesome and toothless. Not that this is a necessarily bad thing, certainly this is the sort of kids’ film on which Disney built its golden reputation many decades ago, and it’s nice to have something to counter the torrent of trashy fare that the industry directs at kids these days. However, it does mean that for audiences spoiled by the complex hilarity of Aladdin, Toy Story, Shrek, and others, anyone past puberty will have little use for this new wave of family flicks beyond babysitting duty.

The film begins with our rotund hero (Bill Murray) in his usual fine form pestering humble owner Jon Arbuckle (Breckin Meyer) and eating up a storm. As in the comic, Jon has a crush on veterinarian Liz (Jennifer Love Hewitt) and uses Garfield’s visits as a pretext for making small talk. He finally works up the courage to ask her out, but through a convenient misunderstanding he ends up adopting abandoned dog Odie (some dog) instead. This is no welcome news for Garfield, who is loath to share his home and Jon with a dimwitted canine. While Jon’s romance with Liz finally gets underway, an escalating rivalry between the pets leads to Garfield expelling Odie from the house, causing the latter to wander off and get lost. Meanwhile sinister TV pet trainer Happy Chapman (Stephen Tobolowsky) learns Odie is lost and manages to track him down. Having discovered Odie’s great dancing talent at a pet show earlier on, he plans to use him to jumpstart his flagging career. Garfield, Jon, Liz, and a host of animal co-conspirators race to save Odie before Chapman spirits him away to New York.

The Garfield faithful will be pleased that several of the classic characters are represented here, but their depiction leaves something to be desired. Bill Murray seems a natural choice to deliver the acerbic one-liners Garfield is famous for, but his performance here, while certainly respectable, is so soft and understated that even the few distinctly Garfield-esque lines don’t really register. He still loves lasagna and hates exercise, but such occasional posturing aside, this is a much gentler, more stable, and more subdued Garfield than comic readers are used to. Curious, given that Murray’s bitingly sarcastic performance in such films as Ghostbusters, Scrooged, and Groundhog Day would have been dead-on perfect for Garfield.

The rest of the cast fares a bit worse. Jon is shy as in the comic, but he has become nothing more than a dull straight man. He was a lovable and funny loser in the comics, blundering his way through dating disasters or erupting in hysterics at the latest indignity dealt out by Garfield. Odie actually seems to possess some degree of talent and even intelligence, whereas in the comic he is stupidity personified. Nermal shows up to make a few annoying remarks to Garfield, but there’s no hint of his evil streak that caused Garfield much heartache in the comics. Liz is much, much friendlier than her acid-tongued comic counterpart, but this is understandable since the writers have dubiously chosen to have her fall in love with Jon, and there’s little more than an hour of running time to wrap everything up. She does admittedly look absolutely stunning, and I generally forgot Garfield was even in the movie when she appeared.

All acting quibbles aside, Garfield himself looks great. The CG is very effective, and Garfield certainly looks like he just stepped out of the comic strip, even if he doesn’t quite sound like it. I would have much preferred that Odie get the CG treatment as well, since the mutt employed in the film doesn’t really look anything like him. However, since Garfield alone reportedly cost $35 million to animate, I can understand this choice.

The special features are surprisingly limited for such a high profile franchise. I can’t imagine Shrek or Nemo or Scooby Doo getting such shoddy treatment. Extras are limited to a Baha Men music video and a commentary track. “Holla” is typical Baha Men, tame but fun, and thankfully much less annoying than that infernal dog song. The commentary from the director and producer gives some insight into the difficulties of filming around a nonexistent CG character, but both sort of give the impression that this was just a paycheck for them. There’s no making of segment, no history of Garfield, no cartoons, and nothing from creator Jim Davis at all. Quite shameful really.

In the end Garfield: The Movie takes a much beloved, very charismatic, and quite funny franchise and turns it into a generic assembly line family picture. It’s a colorful romp that kids will enjoy and parents will approve of, but longtime fans hoping for a laugh riot would be best advised to dig out their comic collections (or browse the awesome Garfield.com which has all of them). For that matter, the recently released Garfield as Himself cartoon collection does a much better job of capturing the spirit and wit of Garfield. I doubt even Garfield himself could be bothered to get out of bed for this movie, unless you baked it with cheese.

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