Garfield: The Movie (2004)

Garfield’s voice on the small screen was provided by a man named Lorenzo Music. In addition to establishing a storied career as a television writer, Music was also an in-demand voice actor for children’s cartoons, appearing on shows ranging from The Real Ghostbusters to Pac-Man and The Gummi Bears, in addition to a recurring role on Rhoda. Garfield, however, was his most famous role, from the cat’s first television appearance, in 1982’s Here Comes Garfield, until the 1994 cancellation of the Saturday morning staple, Garfield and Friends. Considering that Music was Garfield creator Jim Davis’ personal choice, it’s likely that if Music hadn’t died of cancer in 2001, he would have voiced Garfield for the movie.

Bill Murray isn’t known for working well in the shadow of others. It’s an open secret in Hollywood that he has long resented director Harold Raimis for the perception that Raimis is primarily responsible for Murray’s most beloved movies (Caddyshack [1980] and Groundhog Day [1993]). Their frosty friendship was even exhumed in Tad Friend’s New Yorker piece on Raimis (19 April 2004 ). Still, as Music was the animated voice of Peter Venkman, originally Murray’s character in the Ghostbusters films, it’s oddly fitting that Murray fill in for Music in the role of Garfield. Despite the fact that this movie was roundly ignored on its release, it was obviously a labor of love for many talented people — Murray included. Music would be pleased.

With that said, I was prepared to hate Garfield: The Movie, despite Murray’s presence. Garfield has always been a singularly witless comic strip, if immensely popular. The animated Garfield was funny, kinetic, and engaging in ways that the comic strip has never been, but the people who made the cartoons so enduringly funny are conspicuously absent from this film’s credits, namely, Music and Garfield and Friends‘ co-producer and head writer, Mark Evanier.

Instead, the film boasts the talents of writers Joel Cohen and Alec Sokolow, who worked on 1995’s Toy Story. I’m not going to try to convince you that Garfield is anywhere near as good as Toy Story, because it isn’t. But it is enjoyable. There’s a pleasant roundness to the script that reminds me of the type of airtight, satisfying frameworks that Pixar uses as scaffolding for their peerless animated films. The stakes are small but the characters are refreshingly well drawn, without the acerbic flatness that so often infects sub-par children’s entertainment. And if Garfield‘s non-animated creatures lack distinction (what you might call “edge”), it should be remembered that it’s intended primarily for small children. The fact that I enjoyed it as much as I did is says a lot about the filmmakers’ engaging attention to detail.

As in the comic strip, Garfield is owned by Jon (the pleasantly average Breckin Meyer). But here, unlike in the comics (where he is frequently lampooned as the most aggressively boring dude in existence), Jon is fairly normal. It’s not hard to see how veterinarian Liz (Jennifer Love Hewitt) might reciprocate Jon’s feelings. It may seem like a baffling choice for fans of the strip who are used to seeing Jon get shot down by Liz at every opportunity, but on closer examination, it becomes obvious that pretty much every decision regarding the character dynamics has been made with the not-so-subtle intention of placing Garfield at the center of the action. Therefore, Jon’s relentlessly uncool nature has been scrubbed away, leaving the character a fairly likeable but bland cipher. Concepts that may work wonderfully in terms of setting up jokes for a daily comic strip don’t really serve to propel the plot in an 80-minute narrative. Everything, from the color schemes to the camera framing is designed to focus attention on the cat. Every character exists for the sole purpose of providing a straight man (or cat, or dog, or mouse) for Garfield’s sardonic riffing.

The exception to this rule is Odie the dog. Liz gives Odie to Jon, and Garfield immediately rejects the canine interloper’s presence in his well-balanced and consummately selfish existence. The plot kicks into motion when Garfield’s selfishness results in Odie running away from home and getting kidnapped by an evil talk show personality who uses trained animals in his act (Odie has the special talent of dancing on his hind legs every time the Black Eyed Peas’ “Hey Mama” is played). While Garfield initially rejoices at Odie’s disappearance, he is eventually chastened, and sets off to The City in order to save Odie, who, he finally realizes, is his friend.

Borrowing liberally from Here Comes Garfield as well as Toy Story II (which Cohen and Sokolow had nothing to do with), the story is beside the point. It is a testament to the ubiquity of computer animation that Garfield’s spectacular appearance has gone almost wholly unheralded by the movie-going public. Concocted completely in CGI, the cat is pretty much the spitting image of his illustrated self. But he moves like a real cat, with (for the most part, when he’s not dancing) the body language and the subtle mannerisms of a cat, not a cartoon character. Just watching Garfield walk across the room is a visual delight.

It’s been 16 years since Who Framed Roger Rabbit? hit screens, and while the effects in that movie still look pretty good, the art of mixing animation with live action has definitely come a long way. The fact that Garfield can be presented in almost seamless harmony with a very real environment makes this otherwise negligible picture state of the art. But technology only goes so far: just look at the way that the live-action Odie brilliantly interacts with the CGI Garfield. They wrestle, dance, even share a hug.

Garfield: The Movie‘s failure at the box office likely stems from the waning popularity of Garfield as a licensed character. Considering the fact that no one could have begrudged the filmmakers for phoning this one in, it’s to their credit that they put as much obvious work into Garfield as they did. It is also to Murray’s credit that he was able to fill Music’s shoes, a touch that will undoubtedly be appreciated by fans of the animated Garfield — and there are many, as the show remains a staple of cable TV reruns. I’d be surprised if Garfield, in its DVD future, doesn’t become a favorite among the kiddie set.