Garfield: The Movie (Special Edition) Review

Garfield the cat has a pretty cushy life. Living in pampered splendour with his well-meaning but indulgent owner Jon (Breckin Meyer), he spends his days lounging in his bed, taunting the local dog and hanging out with the other cats, all the time keeping his eye out for the next opportunity to surreptitiously grab some unguarded food a careless neighbour has left lying around. His cosy cosy existence is shattered, however, when one day the girl Jon fancies (Jennifer Love Hewitt) asks him to adopt a homeless puppy called Odie, an intruder that Garfield believes will come between him and his beloved master. Attempting to ensure this doesn't happen, he locks Odie out of the house, only for him to run off and end up in the clutches of failed television presenter Happy Chapman (Stephen Tobolowsky), who believes the dog's dancing (which Garfield in a rare moment of ceasefire has taught him) can put him back on primetime TV. Garfield is struck by a rare feeling of guilt and so decides to break the habit of a lifetime and leave his cosy cul-de-sac behind him, setting forth bravely into the city to save his former foe…

It’s taken Garfield twenty six years to make the leap from comic strip to feature film, but it was a move that was ultimately inevitable, cinema being practically the only form of media the franchise hasn’t exploited. As is well documented on one of the extras on the disk, Garfield is as much a merchandising phenomenon as a comic strip, the character's image gracing everything from bumper stickers to tshirts to mugs to anything that can possibly have a logo printed on it. In the early eighties a sucker-cup Garfield was the thing to have in your car and the first collections of the strips topped bestseller lists and nowadays Garfield is read daily by an estimated 263 million people in 2,570 newspapers across 11 countries. In the light of this, it might seem puzzling that it has taken this long for the fat cat to appear on the big screen, but up until now there was always the problem of how Garfield himself was going to be portrayed on the screen. Although there has been a Garfield cartoon for years (check out Kev’s review of the first DVD release of that here). Hollywood generally demands live action for its cinematic adaptations, no matter how many disasters this produces (The Flintstones, anyone?) and when the central character is the one that must be CGI-ed, it is vital it’s got right. It was only with the perceived success of the eponymous dog in Scooby Doo that it was seen that it could be done, and Garfield was greenlit.

I say perceived success because I wasn't actually that impressed with the finished Scooby-Doo in those films and the CGI-Garfield presented here is a much more successful rendition of a cartoon character. It’s an unenviable task to take a much beloved 2-D character and digitise him so that he both works in the film's flesh-and-blood surroundings while also remaining faithful to his original look, but Rhythm & Hues Studios have done a fine job here. Garfield is recognisably the same cat that so many people see in their newspapers every morning, coming complete with his generally laconic expression (which every so often breaks out into something more, whether it into a grin, shocked expression or whatever). His movement too, is both catlike but also suitable for the role, and, while it is impossible to forget that he is an artificial creation, there are moments when you believe you could reach out and pick him out, so convincing is he.

Unfortunately, what isn’t so convincing is the integration of the character into his environment. While in stills he looks fine, in the moving picture itself he just doesn’t convince. Some elements are careless – when characters carry him the actors don’t make any effort at all to suggest how heavy he is (odd, considering the fact he is a fat cat is one of his chief characteristics) – but in other shots it’s harder to say exactly why he doesn’t fit – he just doesn’t. The choreography of his interactions with the scenes around him is spot on, whether it be simply a matter of moving a chair as he jumps onto it, leaping onto Jon's bed or falling into a lorryful of lasagne, but it's no good - for whatever reason he isn't quite there, which is a great shame, given the excellence of the CGI itself.

Also what doesn’t quite work is Bill Murray’s playing of him. There was a pleasing symmetry in the casting of Murray as the cat’s voice – the late Lorenzo Music, who played Garfield in the cartoon series, had also played Murray’s character in the Ghostbusters cartoon, so just as he had stepped into Murray’s shoes there, now Murray stepped into his shoes here. It is a fitting match, as both have a drawling sardonic quality to their voice, and it’s very difficult to think of any Hollywood actor other than Murray who would theoretically suit the cinematic version of the cat half as well. And yet… for some reason the sound and animation don’t gel as they should. Again, it’s very hard to say why – perhaps it’s because Murray’s voice is slightly too old, or that it sounds more like a voiceover than an actual performance – but for whatever reason there’s never a sense that the voice is actually coming from the cat. It doesn't fit, which is frustrating as Murray should have been perfect (no pun intended) for the part.

If Garfield doesn’t feel quite right in the film, the film doesn’t feel quite right as a Garfield story either. There are a couple of moments early on that are very recognisable – one line in particular, “Well actually, it’s liver-flavoured” is bang on (as is Garfield’s expression when saying it). But very swiftly a sentimental tone invades the picture and its lead character, understandably given the target audience but annoying if one wants a completely faithful adaptation. Although there is of course a difference between a comic strip that lasts for three pictures and a feature-length narrative, it is hard to reconcile the selfish cat of Jim Davis’ world with the cat that risks life and limb to save Odie here. This is a flaw within the story concept itself – the very fact Garfield is the reason Odie disappears demands that he be the one who saves him – and perhaps the idea of doing a feature of Garfield at all is a mistake, given this conflict between the sardonic tone of the cartoons and the necessity of making a film starring a CGI-cat a family-friendly one. There's no way, given the ubiquitous nature of the character, any other approach would have been taken, but it still feels a very different approach to the comic strip.

The other problem is Odie. One of Jim Davis’ stipulations to the filmmakers was that they must adhere to the precedent set in the comic strip that Odie never talks. This is a major problem as he’s the only animal in the film that doesn’t, and as such completely fails to establish himself as a character on the same level as the others, which he really needed to do. It is therefore hard to understand the bond between him and Garfield, and makes him seem very much a background detail, which is disastrous given the story. This is one area where a little dramatic license would have been most prudent.

The safe, bland approach extends to the human cast, such as they are. Like every other film she ever appears in, Jennifer Love Hewitt smiles a lot and looks pretty while bringing no charisma to the screen at all, while Meyer as Jon has the open-faced look suitable for the character but not quite the dopiness. I spent the first two appearances of Tobolowsky trying to remember where I’d seen him before, finally recognising him as Sammy Jankis from Memento, which was incidentally the most fun I had with him the whole film – he’s okay as far as he goes, but isn’t a memorable villain. Peter Hewitt, however, manages to keep things fairly interesting in his direction – he employs a bright, almost primary colour palate that works well, both underlining the newsprint origins while also looking attractive in its own right.

Maybe Garfield is too cynical a creation ever to work as a live action film, especially given the fact that, as a talking cat in the mainstream media, the film would inevitably be aimed at the younger end of the market. The end result has come out as a mishmash, neither arch enough to do justice to Jim Davis’ voice nor original enough to work as a film in its own right. Almost everything in it is bland, from the script to the actors to the execution, aside from the excellent CGI Garfield himself, which one feels is rather wasted in this dull film. As it is, maybe the filmmakers would have been best off following Garfield’s example and just stayed at home in bed and left sleeping cats lie.

The Disk
This special edition comes on two disks, although there is also a single-disk version available. The first disk begins with a bunch of trailers, which is always annoying on a retail release. Following an anti-piracy segment, which is fair enough, we get looks at Two Brothers, The Magic Roundabout (looking rather different to its TV predecessor), Bratz: the Movie and something called Spring for Strawberry Shortcake which made me want to throw up, with two of those Maltesers ads thrown in along the way for good measure. The menu itself consists of Garfield doing a dance that loops every fifteen seconds or so. The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 ratio and is subtitled, as are all the extras bar the deleted scenes but including the commentary.

The second disk has two options: Featurettes and Multi-Angle Options. The former leads to a submenu of four featurettes, three of which - The Birth of Garfield, The Rise of Garfield and Garfield: From Strip to Screen - could easily have been strung together to make one documentary. (A play-all option would have been nice). Everything on this disk is subtitled.

Really nice. The bright colours come across well, with little sign of any digital artefacting. There may be a slight softness of image in places but there is no sign of grain.

Fine. Garfield banging around the air vents sounds good, and overall this is a decent track that, while it won’t stretch your speakers, does enough.

Disk One Extras

Audio Commentary
An adequate but unremarkable commentary from director Hewitt and producer John Davis (no relation). Davis is occasionally very annoying (he thinks it’s funny to ask Hewitt to keep asking him “What were you thinking when you shot this scene?”) but there is enough to keep those interested in the film listening. Would have been nice to have Jim Davis contribute though.

Deleted Scenes
Sixteen and a half minutes of stuff excised from the film, ranging from a couple of seconds to several minutes. Quite a lot of these scenes have an incomplete model of Garfield in them, while one simply comes with a caption: “Garfield eating a hamburger.” There are a few plot holes explained in these, including how Garfield got on the coach and why all the animals turn up at the train station, which is good, but a couple could have done with some sort of explanation – the sequences of two dancers doing their thing to a music track in a rehearsal room are only explained in another extra on Disk Two (they were being filmed for reference for Garfield’s dancing).

Two are included. The first, the Find Odie Maze Game is a vaguely good idea. The player, using the arrow keys on their remote, manoeuvres Garfield around a maze based on the vent scene in the film. Odie’s toys are scattered around and are meant to help lead you to finding him, although they seem to be placed pretty randomly to me, while every so often you must eat some lasagne to keep going. Won’t divert anyone for longer than a couple of minutes, but it’s a nice idea.

The second, Mixing Moments with Garfield features an appearance from the comic strip version of the cat. Alongside the left hand side of the screen are several buttons, each controlling an aspect of the picture on screen – one rotates through various poses for Garfield, for example, another Jon and Odie, another various objects and so on – the idea being you can construct your own scene. This is not very exciting, but I suppose if you’re two years old and like Garfield it could be fun for a while, or at least as long as it takes to flick through the various options.

Garfield: Bringing the Cat to Life
Seven minute featurette looking at the processes that went into making the CGI Garfield. There’s nothing here we haven’t seen in a hundred similar documentaries, but as it’s an interesting topic they are always welcome. Could have done with a little more detail but overall not bad.

Grab a Number 2 Pencil: The Evolution of Garfield
A six minute piece in which Jim Davis draws how Garfield used to look, how he looks now, and introduces us to one of his less popular creations. This is billed as a multi-angle feature as you can switch between looking over Davis’ shoulder as he draws on his pad and looking squarely at him, but since all the interesting stuff is happening on his pad, I doubt many people will choose this second option. Nice to see the man himself both talking and producing the work that made his name, this is quietly very entertaining.

Gone Nutty
Five minute animated short featuring Scrat, the hapless little creature who was the star of Ice Age, this time trying to salvage his collection of nuts which start to get away from him. Not quite sure why this is on here, aside from the connection with the Inside Look feature (see below) – Chris Wedge voices Scrat and, of course, directed Ice Age - but this is a fun little animation with a nice ending.

Inside Look
A five minute promotion for the upcoming Fox CGI movie Robots. Presented by director Chris Wedge, the presentation gives us the basic plot and a few character snippets from the film, none of which seem to have the charm or humour of a Pixar or Shrek. Wedge’s previous film Ice Age wasn’t bad at all, so here’s hoping there’s more to this one than meets the eye but based on this it looks like your bog-standard kids film.

Disk Two Extras

The Birth of Garfield
Jim Davis, looking rather like the cat who’s got the cream, talks through his life story from childhood through to Garfield’s debut as a syndicated comic strip, before ending with a montage of family members talking (very briefly) about his success.

The Rise of Garfield
A continuation of the last documentary (even down to a sound bite from Davis being re-used) this looks at how Garfield became a merchandising phenomenon, starting from the first collections of the comics and the famous Garfield car things, through to the celebration of the character’s twenty-fifth anniversary in Davis’ own town, complete with scarily mad fans (one wearing a Garfield toupee, another with Jim Davis’ autograph tattooed on her forehead: “I can’t see all this meaning as much to anybody as Mr Davis means to me,” she says). Good fun.

Garfield: From Strip to Screen
A typical featurette in which everyone describes how exciting it is to be working on the film, a very quick look at the animation and some praise for the dog. Bog standard.

Illustrated Technical Commentary
Instructive eleven minute lecture on various aspects of bringing the CGI-Garfield to life. Dan Deleeuw and Karl Herbst, two of the visual effects supervisors, talk over sections of footage, drawing on screen to illustrate points they make akin to a teacher drawing on a technical drawing on a blackboard, while discussing such issues as Garfield’s hair, lighting and movement. Good.

Multi-Angle Content
This works as a companion to the illustrated technical commentary. Five CGI sequences from the film are split up into their composite parts, so that the viewer can flick through the various different technical processes that went into making up the shot, namely the Background Plate, Model Animation, Technical Animation, Colour Rendering and the Final Composite. Whichever you choose, all five are seen in small windows on the edge of the screen, allowing instant comparisons. A good use of the multi-angle feature, the only problem is that, when the sequence finishes, instead of returning to the menu they start again, forcing the viewer to manually click menu to get out of it. There is also a selection of storyboard comparisons that are mildly interesting.

Although the movie is nothing to write home about, the DVD is certainly packed with a fine array of extras. Catering to both young and old Garfield fans, there’s something here for everyone, and, unlike the film itself, does the cat and comic strip justice. A case of great disk, shame about the film.

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