It wasn’t a bad idea to hire Bill Murray to do the voice of Garfield, Jim Davis’ fat, lazy comics cat, in this big-screen debut for the now-CGI feline. Murray has the smarmy, deadpan tone that fits the part (much as Lorenzo Music did in the old TV cartoon). It would have been a better idea, though, to give him some amusing lines to recite. As he’s demonstrated all too often in the past, Murray can’t invigorate poor material through delivery alone, and he certainly doesn’t do so in this instance. Despite his presence, “Garfield: The Movie” is frantic but flat, a picture so neutered and declawed that even toddlers will find it too bland for their taste.
One of the problems inherent in adapting a daily comic strip for the screen, of course, is that you have to fashion a story to link together the jokes, and the one devised by Joel Cohen and Alec Sokolow (“Toy Story,” but also “Cheaper by the Dozen”) is about as predictable as you can get. Garfield enjoys the life of Riley dominating his affable owner Jon (Breckin Meyer), but the guy is so infatuated with vet Liz (Jennifer Love Hewitt) that he lets her persuade him to adopt a dog, too. Thus is Odie added to the family–to Garfield’s consternation. Curiously, unlike all the other critters in the movie–mongrels, felines and rodents (the movie might have been titled “Cats, Dogs and Rats”)–Odie can’t talk, but he does dance, a talent that catches the eye of Happy Chapman (Stephen Tobolowsky), a villainous local TV host who wants to kidnap the mutt and use him as his ticket to network stardom. When Garfield locks Odie out of the house, the pup winds up in Chapman’s cruel hands, and the feline goes off to rescue him. The final reels are taken up with the chase, culminating in a rather tasteless bit–given today’s climate–in which Garfield monkeys with the controls at a train terminal, putting various locomotives on collision courses. Need we add that everything turns out all right, especially after all the species team up to defeat Happy? (There has to be a message about teamwork in here too, of course.)
It should be obvious that Cohen and Sokolow have taken the easiest possible route in designing this scenario. In the process they’ve jettisoned whatever sharpness Davis’ strip might contain–and that’s not much to begin with–in favor of family-friendly pablum. The direction by Pete Hewitt, who previously did the undistinguished kiddie flicks “Tom and Huck” and “The Borrowers,” seems slack and enervated even in the most desperate action sequences, but that might partially result from the fact that he has to build much of the picture around the computer-generated title figure and lots of trained animals, along with humans interacting with them–always a complicated and difficult business. It’s understandable that the actors suffer from the same complexities. Nonetheless Meyer is probably the perfect choice for Jon, who in the strip is the most vacuous fellow imaginable; Meyer’s natural insipidity fits him well. Of course, in the newspapers Jon never gets a decent date, but that wouldn’t do in the movie, so cute Liz is attracted to his pleasant obtuseness as much as he is to her sweet cheer; Hewitt plays her with a total blankness that suggests there’s absolutely nothing going on behind her eyes. Poor Tobolowsky is saddled with an even unhappier role, and he responds by chewing up the scenery relentlessly; it’s certainly no help that he must also play, in mercifully brief snippets, his twin brother, a newscaster sporting a bad toupee. Tobolowsky is an actor with a tendency to irritate if not reined in, and in this instance he’s prodded instead.
To be fair, the computer animation in “Garfield” is of excellent quality. The feline moves nicely, and he’s integrated well into the live action. (He has a tendency to break into song and/or dance too often, but that’s hardly the fault of the effects team from Pixel Magic.) But like Murray’s voice contribution, the technical wizardry counts for little in the absence of good writing. Still, there is one line Murray delivers late in “Garfield” that inadvertently sums up the movie. As the cat is tossed into a cage at the animal pound late in the action, he complains, “This is all a terrible mistake.” Indeed.
One can, however, point to a small saving grace to this misfire. Fox is preceding the picture with a 2002 short featuring Scrat, the prehistoric rodent from “Ice Age,” called “Gone Nutty,” in which the little fella’s insatiable longing for one more acorn leads to a change in the whole global environment. Scrat’s an amusing creation, sort a computer-generated variant of Wile E. Coyote, and he manages to deliver more laughs in a mere four minutes than Garfield does in over an hour. Of course, whether “Nutty” alone is worth your hard-earned dollars is doubtful. “Garfield” certainly isn’t.