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Garfield: The Movie   C-

20th Century Fox

Year Released: 2004
MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Peter Hewitt
Writer: Joel Cohen, Alec Sokolow (based on the comic strip by Jim Davis)
Cast: Breckin Meyer, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Stephen Tobolowsky, Bill Murray.

Review by Rob Vaux

Once upon a time, a cartoonist named Jim Davis created a comic strip about a fat sarcastic cat and his owner. It wasn't edgy or groundbreaking, but it had a sense of humor and found a few easy truths to embody. There was enough subtext to appeal to adults and enough silly fun for kids to enjoy without harm. Pretty soon, everyone in America was reading it. Comic strips spawned best-selling books, and then coffee mugs, and then animated cartoons. The cat started popping up everywhere; secretaries hung "I hate Monday" posters on their walls, while Italian restaurants experienced a boom in child-sized lasagna meals. We were blitzed by stuffed animals, by figurines, by suction-cupped visages hanging from car windows. Davis became rich beyond the dreams of avarice, and nobody noticed how the material slowly began losing its spark. With such a large readership, it was important to avoid offending anyone, and homogeneity soon drained it dry. Marketing and corporate promotion eclipsed the need for new ideas; writing became committee-based, existing solely to keep the cottage industry rolling.

And then one day we woke up, looked at the comics section, and said to ourselves "You know something? Garfield really sucks."

Garfield: The Movie is the logical offshoot of this phenomenon: an act of creativity so thoroughly bastardized that no one can remember what was so appealing about it in the first place. The characters exist solely as packaging; the plot just one more extension of a merchandizing empire. It was made because it could be made, with no thought of expression or storytelling. The only important factor was that this particular product had never been rendered in a live-action movie. Now it has and I'm sure they couldn't be prouder.

It's odd, because in this incarnation, Garfield isn't strictly live-action. He's CGI animation, rendered with all the attributes of his comic image and brought to life by the voice of Bill Murray. Thankfully, he's pleasing to look at and devoid of the creepiness that similar figures so often evoke (although he has no genitalia, which weirded me out something fierce). Garfield's most perplexing attribute, however, is how such obvious artifice is made to blend with more traditional photorealism. Though Garfield is an active caricature, his friends Arlene and Nermal are standard-looking animals -- save that their lips move when they talk, as they would in, say, a cat-food ad -- while his sidekick/nemesis Odie is completely live-action without any embellishment at all. Director Pete Hewitt extends these mix-n-match qualities to the entire proceedings, from owner Jon Arbuckle's house (painted in bright, primary colors outside, but coolly naturalistic inside) to the unnamed city where Garfield's adventures eventually take him. The lack of aesthetic commitment compounds the material's already terminal blandness, creating an atmosphere devoid of texture or theme.

The plot is strictly for the kids. Appalled by the appearance of Odie in his self-centered life, Garfield unwittingly allows a local TV personality (Stephen Tobolowski) to spirit the dog away. When he comes to realize how much he actually likes Odie, he launches a rescue effort, while simultaneously attempting to nudge Jon (Breckin Meyer) into a relationship with his dish of a veterinarian (Jennifer Love Hewitt, looking good in a sun dress). It's simple stuff, drawn in the broadest possible arcs, and engineered to ruffle absolutely zero feathers. You may remember a similar notion during one of the original animated specials; it fills 22 minutes far more comfortably than 85. Yet despite having so much more time on its hands, Garfield passes up plenty of comic opportunities, even from so soft a source as Davis' strips. Jon, for example, was originally a hapless loser who girls wouldn't date on a dare, and adorable kitten Nermal used calculated cuteness to ruthlessly Bogart everyone's attention. Garfield's cynicism came as a defense against such idiocy, giving the jokes a target and a modicum of direction at least. But all of that has been gone for years and the movie -- unwilling to commit to anything resembling a risk -- doesn't dare resurrect it. The on-screen results are so free of personality or humanity as to be intangible.

Hewitt, to be fair, keeps the tone bright and upbeat, Murray gives voice to Garfield as well as anyone could, and the film's message (such as it is) about friendship and responsibility is worth conveying. Certainly, there's nothing actively hurtful about the proceedings. But that's sort of the point. Humor -- even gentle family-based humor -- needs some kind of foundation. It requires observed reality and recognizable life experience, however small, in order to function. And if it's targeted at children, then it needs something -- anything -- that will engage their imagination. Garfield lost all of that a long time ago. He lives now only in sales receipts, his image nothing more than a corporate vacuum sucking up dollars. The movie bearing his name is everything we could expect from such an entity: pleasant, mushy, and utterly, utterly soulless. Once upon a time, a cartoonist named Jim Davis had a pretty good idea. Looking at Garfield: The Movie, you'd never know it.

Review published 06.10.2003.

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