If you’ve got kids — especially young ones — you might want to bump this film up a star on that basis. Garfield: The Movie is scrupulously clean (even both of Jennifer Love Hewitt’s primary talents are kept in check, though her skirts are still perilously short). Likewise, it has one of those typically safe, if worthy, kiddie-flick messages. So I suppose this film would make for passable entertainment if I were between the ages of 4 and 12. However, on any other level I can think of, this is a woefully misbegotten mess of a flick, ill-conceived and poorly executed.
As a comic strip, Garfield may not be one of the great contributions to culture, but it’s certainly a cheekier little doodle than this mind-numbing cinematic piffle. Of course, taking a three- or four-panel comic strip and turning it into a film requires some kind of plot to drive it — and, oh my, yes, screenwriters Joel Cohen (with an “h”) and Alec Sokolow (of Cheaper by the Dozen infamy) sure found one. And I use the word “found” very deliberately here. I’m not sure where they uncovered this story line, since so many kiddie movies boast the same plot almost exactly. I kept feeling like I was watching a dumbed-down version of Stuart Little 2 — possibly because, like the Stuart Little movies, Garfield is an uneasy blend of CGI and live-action, but more on that in a moment.
Here’s the plot (stop me, if you’ve heard this before — or, better yet, stop the writers!): Garfield the cat (voiced by Billy Murray) finds his world crashing around him when his owner, Jon (Breckin Meyer, Kate and Leopold), brings home a beguiling puppy, Odie (played by an actual dog). Jon does so in order to impress veterinarian Liz (Jennifer Love Hewitt, The Tuxedo), on whom he has a longstanding crush. And then it’s loathe at first sight as the self-centered feline finds the drooling dog getting too much attention.
Then Garfield locks the dog outside and Odie runs away, ultimately finding his way into the hands of the evil Happy Chapman (Stephen Tobolowsky, Freaky Friday), who mystifyingly thinks the mutt’s dubious terpsichorean endeavors are his passport to fame and fortune. Seeing the damage he’s done — and realizing he really likes the pooch — Garfield sets out to rescue Odie. Comical/thrilling complications ensue.
Having a queasy bout of deja vu yet? Understandable. But lame as this plot may be, it pales in comparison to the utterly bizarre idea of taking comic-strip characters and making only one of them a cartoon effect. It’s jarring — and apparently as much for the live actors as for the viewer, to judge by the performances. Worse still, it smacks of something made on the cheap, a point driven home by the cheesy computer-generated mouths slapped on the film’s real animals.
Garfield himself may look less like the comic strip character than a wise-ass feline Teddy Ruxpin (“The World’s First Animated Talking Toy!”) — and a Teddy Ruxpin that sometimes integrates rather poorly with his live-action co-stars. Still, as suggested above, this effect looks pretty good next to the real “talking” animals. You might think that advances in technology might have improved on the conversing camels from 1942’s Road to Morocco — and those were deliberately cartoonish — but you’ll find no evidence of progress here. Garfield frequently looks for all the world like a bad video effect from a TV skit. As such, his appearance will probably suit undemanding children; anyone else is apt to find it wanting.
So what in Garfield — apart from La Hewitt’s skimpy skirts — is there to appeal to an adult viewer? Bill Murray certainly makes a game try at voicing the title character, but for the most part, the material just isn’t there; no matter how wryly amusing Murray can be, there’s only so much he can do with so little to work from. Viewers with a taste for broad slapstick — and we’re talking English Channel broad here — might find some bits of fleeting amusement in the titular cat’s adventures in the Big City; however, this segment accounts for maybe 15 minutes of the film, leaving a sizable chunk of tepid humor and lame plotting to fill up the rest of the running time.
The worst thing about a movie like Garfield is that it’s not Cat in the Hat bad, but is just the sort of indifferent creation that qualifies as “cute.” And that probably means it will stick around a lot longer than it deserves to.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke