Garfield: The Movie

on June 11, 2004 by Wade Major
Throughout the 1980s, cartoonist Jim Davis parlayed his successful "Garfield" comic strip into a bona-fide merchandising phenomenon. The popular cartoon cat even made the transition to television, first with a series of seven specials between 1982 and 1987, then on a weekly basis with the Saturday morning series "Garfield & Friends."

It's been nearly a decade since that show ended its seven-year run, and even longer since the character was any kind of cultural icon. The daily strips now get by on autopilot, mostly recycling 20 years worth of jokes that weren't that funny to begin with. That's not to say that Garfield merchandise no longer sells or that a new generation of children hasn't latched onto cartoon reruns--but it's a suspiciously strange time for 20th Century Fox to attempt the character's resurrection, particularly in a high-profile, big-budget live-action effort like "Garfield: The Movie."

Inspired by the success of CGI-driven talking-animal films like "Stuart Little," "Babe" and, in particular, the live-action "Scooby-Doo" pictures, "Garfield: The Movie" transports a computer-generated, Bill Murray-voiced version of Davis' droll, deadpan feline wiseguy into the material world where he enjoys a life of unparalleled leisure, his gal-shy master Jon (Breckin Meyer) always at his beck and call. Unfortunately, it's Jon's weakness for one woman in particular that upends the paradisiacal arrangement when Garfield's adorably cute vet, Liz (Jennifer Love Hewitt), begs Jon to adopt a sweet, ownerless mutt named Odie.

To anyone familiar with the comic, it goes without saying that Garfield and Odie--the drooling fool of a dog on whom Garfield repeatedly heaps his mischief--are a team. One without the other is as unthinkable as Abbott without Costello, Laurel without Hardy. Astonishingly, the filmmakers have effectively done just that by casting a real dog as Odie, a fatal miscalculation that only seems to compound the picture's numerous other flaws. Previous live-action adaptations of classic cartoons--"The Flintstones," "Scooby-Doo" and "The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle"--have all respected a certain unwritten rule that only humans could be brought into the live-action universe. Here, the only recognizable figure from the comic is Garfield himself, an exaggerated CGI creation that stands in peculiar contrast to a wide array of live animal actors. No surprise, then, that it's nearly impossible to be engaged by Garfield's eventual quest to liberate a kidnapped Odie from a crooked television celebrity named Happy Chapman (Stephen Tobolowsky).

More fundamentally problematic is the fact that the Garfield universe has traditionally been based on narrative minimalism, with even the half-hour television series comprised of smaller, 8-minute shorts. "Garfield: The Movie" clocks in at 80 minutes (74 minus end titles) which, despite its relative brevity, actually feels more like the same duration in cat years. Apart from the under-seven set, it's hard to imagine anyone not being agonizingly wearied by the interminable cascade of lowbrow slapstick and Rube Goldberg set pieces, unless, of course, they're able to find some modicum of enjoyment in the voice casting of Murray as Garfield. It's hardly Murray's finest hour--veteran voice man Lorenzo Music (Carlton the Doorman from TV's "Rhoda") was a more suitable choice on the television series--but he does extract several amusing moments from an otherwise unbearable comedic quagmire. Unfortunately, it's a fundamental tenet of "Garfield" that his thoughts go unheard by humans, a disconnect that only further crooks the film's lugubrious narrative momentum.

As a marginal plus, Meyer's lovably bashful Jon--a far cry from the insufferable milquetoast of the comic--is inoffensive, while Love Hewitt handles a thankless role with her usual breezy sweetness. Voiced by Bill Murray. Starring Breckin Meyer, Jennifer Love Hewitt and Stephen Tobolowsky. Directed by Pete Hewitt. Written by Joel Cohen and Alec Sokolow. Produced by John Davis. A Fox release. Family/Comedy. Rated PG for brief mild language. Running time: 80 min

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