Producers: John Cohen, Broderick Johnson, Andrew A. Kosove, Steven P. Wegner, Craig Sost and Namit Malhotra   Director: Mark Dindal   Screenplay: Paul A. Kaplan, Mark Torgove and David Reynolds   Cast: Chris Pratt, Samuel L. Jackson, Hannah Waddington, Ving Rhames, Nicholas Hoult, Cecily Strong, Harvey Guillén, Brett Goldstein, Bowen Yang, Janelle James, Dev Joshi, Snoop Dogg, Luke Cinque-White and Alicia Grace Turrell   Distributor: Sony/Columbia Pictures

Grade: C-

Jim Davis’ cartoon cat has been around for nearly half a century now, migrating from newspaper comic strips to television and, more uneasily, to the big screen.  The lazy, lasagna-loving orange tabby was voiced in two movies, mixtures of live action and animation, by Bill Murray in the early 2000s; neither was very good, and this attempt to reboot the property, now in full computer-animated form and with Chris Pratt stepping into Murray’s shoes (or sound booth), is no better.

That’s less the fault of the animators, or of Pratt (although his delivery lacks the panache of Murray’s—or even of Lorenzo Music and Frank Welker in various TV incarnations), but of scripters Paul A. Kaplan, Mark Torgove and David Reynolds, who seem to have been stymied in coming up with a plot that would faithfully reflect the comic character’s cynical, slothful persona.  So instead they’ve fallen back on hackneyed formulas, tying together a sentimental tale about family with a misguided spoof of “Mission Impossible” (a conceit much better employed in the recent “Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget”), and then swamping the result in an endless stream of lame pop culture references and an avalanche of product placement.  Garfield and Odie become pretty anonymous in the process, and Jon basically disappears.

Except, that is, for the prologue, in which cute kitten Garfield, shivering alone in a rain-drenched alley, spies Jon (Nicholas Hoult) eating alone at Mamma Leoni’s and, using his big doe eyes, induces the gangly guy to let him in through the window, promptly gobbling down a whole pizza.  The upshot is that Jon adopts the kitty.

Cut to Garfield grown up and content with Jon, the voiceless (except for grunts and sighs supplied by Harvey Guillén) pooch Odie (who is here his ever-dutiful attendant), a recliner and TV, a full fridge and ready access to food-order apps.

But his comfortable existence is disrupted when he and Odie are petnapped by a couple of comically thuggish dogs, huge Shar Pei Roland (Brett Goldstein) and twitchy whippet Nolan (Bowan Yang).  They’re the henchanimals of Jinx (Hannah Washington), an extravagantly villainous Persian cat who intends using them to compel Vic (Samuel L. Jackson), the long-absent father Garfield believes abandoned him, to rob Lactose Farms, a combined dairy/tourist attraction.  Her motive?  Revenge.  She feels that Vic had left her to the tender mercy of animal control after they tried a botched robbery at the place years before.  She figures he owes her a quart of milk fir each day she spent in the pound, and computes the amount at about 1,600 quarts.

So Garfield and Odie are conscripted into an elaborate heist that also involves Otto (Ving Rhames), a taciturn bull fired from his job as Lactose’s spokesbovine who’s pining away for his beloved cow Ethel (Alicia Grace Turrell), still locked up in the place.  The screwy plan catches the attention of maniacally resolute security guard Marge (Cecily Strong, doing a broad vocal imitation of Frances McDormand’s Chief Gunderson from “Fargo”).  But that’s only the first part of Jinx’s revenge plan, which eventually puts everybody aboard a train racing through the mountains for a big action finale—followed, of course, by a saccharine postscript blending families biological and otherwise.

One can sympathize with the difficulty that faced writers assigned to come up with a feature-length script based on a comic that’s always relied on a single (and repetitious) gag-of-the-day format rather than running stories, but Kaplan, Torgove and Reynolds have taken an easy way out, and then compound their resultant cliché-ridden scenario with a stream of mini-commercial references so ubiquitous that by the time Garfield remarks that only he and Tom Cruise do their own stunts, adults in the audience may literally cringe.

But the larger problem is that Davis’ characters are largely lost in the shuffle—not visually, of course, but in terms of who they are.  Turning Garfield into an action hero is antithetical to his layabout comic-page persona, and making him a teary-eyed quasi-orphan is no less so.  Portraying Odie as a compliant, brainy aide rather than a dim-witted pooch is almost as much a stretch.  And though Jon nearly disappears, what’s left of him is hardly the hapless doofus of the comics. Perhaps the makers thought that putting indoor Garfield into an outdoor settling would make for a great fish-out-of-water spin on a venerable template; it doesn’t. 

The new characters don’t make up for the loss.  Rhames earns a few smiles with Otto’s “pregnant pause” style, and Guillén’s Roland has an occasional moment.  But the hyperactive vocals of both Jackson and Waddington, while suited to Vic and Jinx, are exhaustingly irritating—the fault of the writing more than the performances.  Mark Dindal’s direction, Mark Keefer’s editing and John Debney’s score follow suit with their emphasis on velocity and adrenaline. Garfield’s natural pace is far more placid: he prefers a good nap to any sort of physical activity.

Of course, the makers might persuasively argue that there’s no place in today’s marketplace for an animated family movie that ambles rather than rushing about madly (though Aardman has repeatedly refuted that idea).  But then why choose to make a movie that’s purportedly about a well-known comic character that turns him into a figure so totally divorced from the one readers have embraced in the newspapers?  Except for brand identification, of course—though in this case it turns out to be the old bait-and-switch, and no fun at all. “The Garfield Movie” doesn’t so much return the orange tabby to the screen as turn him into a much more benign, much less amusing feline.