Grade: C-

A sequel that’s better than its predecessor isn’t quite as rare a phenomenon as it once was, but it’s still sufficiently unusual to be surprising–especially in the case of a movie like “Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties.” The punning subtitle alone would seem to guarantee a disaster.

In the event, though, the new picture based on the comic-strip feline–another combination of live action and heavy CGI effects–is a marked improvement on the first one. That doesn’t mean an awful lot, of course, since “Garfield: The Movie” was terrible. But perhaps because of the English setting–and the fact that it brings the replacement of Stephen Tobolowsky by Billy Connolly as the villain, as well as voice-over work by the likes of Tim Curry and Bob Hoskins–or maybe as a result of the change of directors (Tim Hill replaces Pete Hewitt), it’s a far more tolerable experience. Not good, to be sure; there are still entirely too many fart jokes and repetitive bouts of slapstick for that. But though mediocre, it’s not the complete load of kitty litter the first movie was, and it will do as family fare for the undemanding.

Despite that subtitle, the obvious inspiration here isn’t so much Dickens as Twain—“The Prince and the Pauper.” The idea is that fat-cat Garfield, who’s followed his owner Jon (the all-too-convincingly fatuous Breckin Meyer) to Britain to prevent Jon’s planned proposal to vet Liz (a nondescript Jennifer Love Hewitt), is mistaken for Prince (voiced by Curry), an identical-looking feline that’s just inherited Carlisle Castle. Prince, meanwhile, has been tossed into the drink by the evil Lord Dargis (Connolly), who will take over the property if the cat disappears, only to float to London, where he’s found by Jon and assumed to be Garfield. Dargis, of course, tries to rid himself of “Prince” once more so that he can use the property to build condos and an office park, but Prince/Garfield is protected by the other castle animals, led by pug Winston (Hoskins), whose sinecures there are threatened by Dargis, too. All the confusion culminates in a final slapstick chase in which the two cats–aided by Jon, Liz and Garfield’s pooch housemate Odie, who’s about the only mute critter on display here and, while cutely fumbling, proves a lot smarter than he is in the comics–stymie Dargis once and for all and save the estate for the animals.

Even at just a bit over seventy minutes, this plays like a strenuously padded Looney Tunes short, and some of the padding seems distinctly low-grade: the bevy of household critters led by Winston, for instance, seem a pale reflection of “Racing Stripes” rather than the progeny of “Babe,” which is obviously what it’s aiming for. And able farceur though he is, even Connolly can’t sustain the sheer volume of pratfalls he’s compelled to take. But Murray and Curry hit the right notes in their voice work for the two cats, Ian Abercrombie and Roger Rees do yeoman service as the Carlisle butler and the family solicitor, and Meyer and Hewitt are mercifully kept pretty much in the background. The cinematography by Peter Lyons Collister is crisp, the computer effects solid, and even the background score by Christophe Beck is less annoyingly upbeat than one might have expected.

To be honest, the funniest moments in this second “Garfield” are unintentional. The first comes when Liz breathlessly announces to Jon that she’s been abruptly called to London as an emergency speaking replacement for Jane Goodall, who’s pulled out. (She’s such a name?) But that’s topped when Garfield, watching English television, sees a news broadcast showing the pampered royal pooches of Elizabeth II and says, “I wish Jon were a queen.” One suddenly has a vision of a Garfield movie in the post-“Brokeback” world.

Now there’s a sequel that might really be interesting.