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Published: Saturday, 6/12/2004

Movie review: Garfield: The Movie *

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Garfield: The Movie tells the story of a mean-spirited, bitter, morbidly obese orange Cheezit, probably with Type 2 kitty diabetes, who sounds a lot like Bill Murray, only even more bored.

The one-dimensional anti-hero of Jim Davis' 26-year-old comic strip is now a creepy three-dimensional computer-generated feline with the large dead eyes of a carnival prize. The remaining cats and dogs in his neighborhood are real cats and dogs, their mouths animated for the requisite wisecracks, and you imagine when Garfield slugs home they get real catty and chat about "all the work he's had done."

The rest of the time, when Garfield is around, they discuss chain restaurants like Red Lobster and watch Wendy's commercials, and race through kennel club shows adorned with banners advertising well-known canned pet food and big-box pet stores.

It's an ugly, dispiriting film - and I haven't even gotten to the part where the bad guy, local TV sleazeball Happy Chapman (Stephen Tobolowsky), fastens an electric collar on his pets and jolts them, only to later be fastened with the collar himself and repeatedly tortured by Garfield and Co., who chuckle as the jerk writhes on the ground and shrieks for help. (Not the best image to call to mind, considering current events and all.)

When Garfield: The Movie evaporates from theaters in a week or two - or whenever 20th Century Fox's exhibition contract with your neighborhood theater expires - the studio might want to consider the following idea:

Edit this film into 30-second snippets. Nearly any 30 seconds will work. Insert product placements into the mere three minutes of footage where this 80-minute feature doesn't shill for its sponsors.

Now sell these hundreds of 30-second spots back to their respective companies - you've made a profit, and they've got a new commercial.

Besides, very little tweaking would need to be to done to get Garfield: The Movie in line with the sort of generic household- cleaner-lunch-snack-deodorant advertising that runs on daytime television. Its flat sitcom sunniness will be recognizable to anyone who ever stayed home sick for a day. And I can already hear what you're thinking: "Wait, Garfield: The Movie is for kids, and the average child doesn't care."

Maybe so. But let us not forget: The appeal of Garfield, when he debuted back in 1978, was not his cuddly side but his "I hate Mondays" misanthropic side. He was even hip once, an emblem of a more fashionably cynical age. Retaining that tone but selling it now to kids in the form of an innocuous time waster never quite gels. Even your child will recognize someone needs to change the kitty litter: Once Garfield has chewed up 20 minutes delivering familiar coffee cup slogans and explaining how he never leaves the cul-de-sac (or couch), the story finds our tubby tabby coming to grips with competition. At the urging of vet Jennifer Love Hewitt, Garfield's owner Jon (Breckin Meyer, perfectly vanilla) brings home an ingratiating canine named Odie. (Not the long, goofy caricature from the strip but a real terrier.)

Garfield, entitled and threatened, shows Odie the kitty door, and Odie ends up in the hands of Happy Chapman and everyone runs around to find him while Garfield goes on a literal guilt trip. Which is precisely the same story you'll find in the Toy Story movies and the sequel to Stuart Little. This wouldn't matter if the slapstick had any energy. But there's an air of desperation and second-hand goods to Garfield: The Movie, right down to the apropos-of-nothing finale.

Shrek pioneered this, sending you out of the theater on a cloud of animated donkeys and gingerbread men ripping through "I'm a Believer." Shrek 2 gets a little less mileage out of "Livin' La Vida Loca." And by the time the gimmick trickles down to Garfield: The Movie we get a single pathetic digital cat shaking his flab on the front porch to James Brown's "I Feel Good."

As for Murray, it's impossible not to picture him jetting in for a day's paycheck, sighing at the banal lines, and moping home. He sounds like he looked on Oscar night, when Sean Penn took the best actor award and Murray's sunken face didn't bother disguising the disappointment. This (for adults anyway) is the biggest drag about Garfield: The Movie. Robin Williams gives his dizzying personality to Aladdin, Mike Myers his Scottish brogue to Shrek; Eddie Murphy creates the illusion that we're watching him and not a donkey jabbering. And yet nothing about Murray's sad sack image comes through Garfield but his smug voice - and it's not even as inspired as it sounds on an average visit to Letterman. (Former Toledoan Alyson Stoner, however, lends one of the rats a feisty squeak.)

I'm not sure the tiny pleasures of a four-panel comic strip can withstand the literalness of live action. But Garfield: The Movie, with its actors staring blankly in the general direction of empty space to be filled in later with special effects, makes no case for itself; it's as lazy as its namesake. USA Today says this is the summer of the cat, what with Antonio Banderas' scene-stealing Puss N' Boots in Shrek 2 and the upcoming Cat Woman. But if it takes three to make a trend, it's looking like a dog day afternoon. One needn't check out Garfield: The Movie to know there are worms in this hairball.



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