I have always thought of the strip as a quiet cartoon, one based on irony and sly, wry humor. Not so the Garfield movie, which is generally raucous and loud.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

I have to admit at the outset that I have never been a big follower of the "Garfield" comic strip, so perhaps my appreciation for the 2004, live-action/CGI movie version of the cartoon was somewhat influenced by this fact. Even so, if "Garfield: The Movie" is looked at using any reasonable, unbiased standards of cinematic judgment, it's still pretty lame, lacking in character, lacking in humor, lacking in story, and lacking in energy.

The Garfield of the Jim Davis comic strip is, as far as I can tell, a sweet, lovable layabout, not only the embodiment of what most of us think of as the easy life of the impassive feline, but the kind of loafer we know is secretly hidden inside all of us. He may be a mischievous scamp and sometimes prankster, but in a comic strip he gets away with things that don't translate well to the screen. Indeed, the Garfield of the movie is something entirely different. He's described in the film as "a happy, fat, lazy cat," but in reality he's a conceited, arrogant, obnoxious, mean-spirited smart aleck. He's anything but loveable or mischievous. And where's the fun in that?

In the movie Garfield appears to be partly a CGI creation, partly an animatronic concoction, and partly a hand puppet, with all the appearance of an exaggerated cartoon facsimile. The result is rather disconcerting, especially considering that all the other animals in the movie are extremely true-to-life. In fact, the cat reminded me of Scooby-Doo from Scooby's own CGI/live-action movies, namely something entirely too weird-looking and out of place to be associated with any sort of reality, cartoon or not.

The other problem with Garfield's character is that he's voiced by Bill Murray, which on the face of it would seem to be perfect. Murray has himself carefully nourished a screen persona of insouciance, nonchalance, unconcern, just the personality Garfield is supposed to represent. What's more, the movie's creators must have remembered what Robin Williams contributed to the "Aladdin" movie and thought Murray could duplicate the feat. But Murray is so casual and so laid-back in the role, he is unable to infuse the movie with any momentum; and, worse, Murray has very little that's funny to do or say except to make some nasty, barbed remarks at the expense of other animals or people. Nothing seems to work.

Add to the movie's general lackluster mood a pedestrian performance by Brecklin Meyer in full "Mr. Nice-Guy" mode as Garfield's owner, Jon Arbuckle, and you come up with a really dull movie. Jennifer Love Hewitt has a small role as Jon's love interest, but what might have been a cute romantic comedy with the cat as a possible help or hindrance is forsaken for a silly chase adventure. The movie was directed by Peter Hewitt, whose only previous motion picture you may remember was "Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey" back in 1991, unless you've heard of "Thunderpants" or "Whatever Happened To Harold Smith?"

About halfway through the "Garfield" movie, after a lot of introductions are made of other characters, mostly animals, Jon adopts a small dog, Odie, and Garfield, naturally, goes mad with jealousy. The dog is so stupid it can only chase its tail. And while all the other animals in the film--cats, dogs, mice, rats, you name it--talk to one another in an animal communication rendered to the audience in English, poor Odie is the only one who is either mute or retarded. He just makes little dog noises that can't be understood by anybody. Go figure.

But Odie does have a trick up his sleeve or paw or whatever: He can dance up a storm. In fact, he's so good at it, he's kidnapped by an unscrupulous local TV personality, "Happy" Chapman (Stephen Tobolowsky), who takes him to New York to help him make it on big-time, network television. Garfield, by this time friendly with the little mutt, goes after and rescues him. But the rescue seems as much to prove himself to his master as it does to save the dog.

Is any of this amusing? No. Indeed, it's the opposite of amusing; it's boring. Garfield gets chased by dogs at a dog show. Garfield gets chased by security guards at the television network in New York. Garfield gets off several burp gags.

Although, as I've said, I've never been a "Garfield" comics follower, I have always thought of the strip as a quiet cartoon, one based on irony and sly, wry humor. Not so the "Garfield" movie, which is generally raucous and loud, starting with its wholly inappropriate background music. As I say, nothing works.

The movie is presented in two formats, the original widescreen as seen in movie theaters and a pan-and-scan modification referred to as "fullscreen." The so-called fullscreen offers about one-third less material to the right and/or left of the frame than the widescreen version, with what is left over in the middle blown up to fill a standard-sized, 4:3-ratio TV. It's a typical brutalization of the image for the dubious value of eliminating the black bars at the top and bottom of a standard television set.

Anyway, the people at Fox at least give the viewer a choice, so I went with the widescreen, which approximates the movie's 1.85:1 theatrical ratio with an anamorphic image that measures about 1.75:1 across my television, given a modern TV's typical overscanning and the studio's minor fudging. Close enough; a negligible five percent loss in this case is a lot better than a thirty percent pan-and-scan loss.

The picture quality is about what we have come to expect from Fox, a good, brilliantly hued transfer with almost no noticeable grain. The colors are gaudy, to be sure, but they are probably just as the filmmakers intended, and they are appropriate to a comic-strip movie. Definition is pretty good, too, and moiré effects, jittery, wavy lines, are at a minimum. Notice the bricks in the walls of a building about two-thirds of the way though the film; they're sharp and solid.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is so unobtrusive, it's practically nonexistent. It might as well be two-channel stereo. I heard almost no rear-channel response whatever, except for some very low-level musical ambiance reinforcement. Nor is there any deep bass or much in the way of dynamic impact. There is, however, a moderate stereo spread in the front channels and a very clear, very clean, and very well-balanced midrange for conveying dialogue, so I suppose that counts for something.

There is not much among the bonuses beyond an audio commentary with director Peter Hewitt and producer John Davis. I suppose you could include an "Inside Look" at the CGI feature "Robots" and the live-action movie "Because of Winn-Dixie" as special extras, plus a music video, "Holla!" with Baha Men, all of them included in the same sequence, but I don't view a studio's promotional material as anything special or extra. Lastly, there are twenty-eight scene selections; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; and English and Spanish subtitles.

Parting Shots:
You'd think a movie based on a cartoon character with so large and loyal a fan base would stand a decent chance of being successful, if only to satisfy the demands of its supporters. But no. "Garfield: The Movie" fails to live up to its comic-strip progenitor.

The fact is, some things are better left alone. "Garfield" works just fine in four or five frames of a daily newspaper, but trying to stretch his persona and his escapades to fit the demands of a full-length movie were obviously too much for the scriptwriters and the director. Well, "Garfield" enthusiasts can still take comfort in the fact that their hero will continue in the comics as he always has, while the movie about him will be forgotten within the year.


Film Value