It’s hard to believe that Jim Davis’ lazy, gluttonous, orange feline has been with us for more than 25 years. Since his debut in the Chicago Sun-Times on June 19, 1978, Garfield has become a daily comics page fixture. His strip appears in 2,570 newspapers globally, reaching an audience of 263 million people—the most widely syndicated comic strip in the world and a market too good for Hollywood to ignore any longer. Enter Garfield: The Movie.
True to the comics, Garfield (a computer-animated character in an otherwise live-action film) is undisputed master of his domain—sleeping, eating, watching TV and manipulating his straight-man owner, Jon Arbuckle. But Garfield’s king-like world comes crashing down when beautiful veterinarian Liz Wilson sweet talks Jon into adopting the hapless puppy, Odie. Garfield resents the intrusion of the dim-witted but kind-hearted canine, and the two develop a classic case of sibling rivalry that brings out the worst in the fat cat.
From the moment Odie arrives, he’s the object of Garfield’s cartoonish abuse. Garfield repeatedly pushes Odie off his chair, and generally tries to bump him out of the room—or the house. At one point, Garfield says, “It’s time for a new game. It’s called the my-claw-in-your-butt game.” Nor is Garfield at a loss for expressive monikers for his new “friend,” such as “tick boy” and “trouser sniffer.” “This puppy is stupid gone wild,” he humphs.
But when one of Garfield’s pranks goes awry, Odie ends up in the clutches of Happy Chapman, a small-time talk-show host who hopes to exploit the canine’s uncanny tricks to make the big time. With the help of his animal friends, Nermal, Arlene, Persnikitty, Louis and a host of other dogs and cats, Garfield sets off across the city to find and rescue Odie—with Jon and Liz never more than a few steps behind and getting more and more googly eyed for each other with each passing scene.
After Odie is captured by Chapman, Garfield has a conscience attack that motivates him to pursue his erstwhile friend. One of Garfield’s mottos is “Never leave the cul-de-sac.” But now he’s forced to find a way into the heart of the city, then into the city’s train station, to extricate Odie. The rush to rescue the pup compels Garfield to set aside his appetite and creature comforts—the two things he cherishes most. (And it’s only with the help of his neighborhood cohorts that Garfield can pull off the rescue mission.) In the process, he begrudgingly admits that he likes Odie and considers him a friend, too. Garfield moves from self-absorption to courage, and his friendships grow deeper as a result. In the end, his friends hail him as a returning hero when he and Odie, Jon and Liz finally make it home.
One scene emphasizes the importance and consequences of telling the truth: When Liz shows up for a date with Jon after Odie has disappeared, Jon initially lies to cover it up. But his conscience gets the best of him, and he realizes that he has to tell her the truth. As a result, Liz and Jon play an important part in rescuing Odie, and their relationship grows stronger.
There’s no explicit sexual content. Two of Liz Wilson’s outfits, however, are tiny. Garfield watches a music video with scantily clad dancers in it—then adds a suggestive wag of his own backside while dancing. Finally, as Garfield observes Odie perform in lederhosen on TV, he smirks, “He seems to have found an alternative lifestyle.” (The undertones of lines such as this one are winks at the adult audience, and will likely be lost on younger viewers.)
The playful violence has a, need I say it, comic book quality (people fall down, things break, animals run amok, etc.). But impressionable younger viewers may pick up the idea that the best way to deal with relational problems is to hit people or intimidate them. Garfield is cute and lovable, but he can also be a bully.
More problematic is Happy Chapman’s use of an electric-shock collar to make Odie do back flips. The demented villain enjoys inflicting pain on the helpless puppy. And Garfield doesn’t miss his opportunity to return the favor. Chapman finds himself on the receiving end of the electric collar after Garfield and Co. rescue Odie. Garfield also instructs Odie to shock his former tormentor—twice. This gratuitous revenge scene added a disturbing twist to the end of a mostly goofy movie.
After filming a TV scene with Persnikitty, Happy Chapman comes off stage, asks for a Benadryl and says, “D–ned cat allergies.” Persnikitty later says “Good God.” There’s lots of name-calling, including “schmuck,” “jerk,” “suck-up” and “idiot.”
Garfield and Nermal steal a half-gallon of milk, then a pie. Later, Garfield’s “milk acquisition” system destroys another half-gallon. Garfield jokes about hanging himself when he’s locked up in the pound. He’s fond of belching and intentionally scalds a showering Jon by flushing the toilet.
An old cliché proclaims, “A bird in the hand is better than two in the bush.” These days, movie studios leave no stone unturned in their quest to bring familiar characters to the big screen in the hope of a big payoff. Thus, a decades-old franchise such as Garfield is hard to resist.
The movie does a reasonably good job of capturing the spirit of Jim Davis’ long-running cartoon. Bill Murray’s voice brings Garfield’s wit and nonchalance to life. Many of his one-liners are genuinely funny and ring true to the comic strip. The writers have faithfully transposed the portly feline from the newspaper to the big screen. So if you’re an avid Garfield fan, you’ll likely enjoy his movie and appreciate the way the writers have fleshed out the regular cast of characters in his neighborhood.
If you stopped reading Garfield around about the time Dilbert showed up, though, you might leave the theater wondering why even a 7-year-old would still find this stuff entertaining. Garfield: The Movie isn’t bad, per se. But a three-panel comic does not an 85-minute movie make.
Not to mention that anyone who has seen the Toy Story flicks can’t help but notice the similarities between them and this. (There’s even a scene in which Garfield and a mouse—on their way to save Odie, who’s caged on the top floor of tall building—scamper through city traffic under cover of a box and a bin.) Perhaps that’s because one of the film’s two writers, Joel Cohen, was also a Toy Story writer. He’s even compared the two films: “Alec [Garfield‘s other writer] and I like to tell a story through the emotional needs of the character, or of the cat, in this case. And if you think about Toy Story, you see how the marriage of plot and character neuroses helps to advance that story.” Unfortunately, the plot device Cohen describes was executed far more winsomely with Woody and Buzz than with Garfield and Odie.
That leaves us with a film that’s neither hot nor cold. For most families, its few objectionable elements will only be a consideration if very young eyes are watching. But it would be a disservice not to say that its positive elements have been dealt with better in countless other movies. Garfield: The Movie won’t cause much offense, nor will make much impression. Not that it ever pretends to be anything more than it is: a familiar story about the meandering exploits of Garfield, Odie and Jon.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews.