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Garfield (June 8/04)

Walking into Garfield, it's easy enough to expect the worst. There's been a small deluge of movies featuring talking pets recently due to technological innovations - ie Good Boy! and Cats and Dogs - though none of them have managed to progressed beyond the level of entertaining-for-kids-only. And while Garfield isn't great by any stretch of the imagination, it doesn't completely suck either - thanks primarily to Alec Sokolow and Joel Cohen's script and Bill Murray's voice work.

It comes as little surprise that Cohen and Sokolow (both of whom co-wrote Toy Story) have penned the film's screenplay, as the film's structure eerily echoes that Pixar hit. Garfield is a fat, lazy cat who's used to being the center of his owner's attention, but is horrified to discover that Jon (played by Breckin Meyer) has decided to adopt a puppy named Odie. Though Jon's only motive for taking in Odie is to impress a veterinarian he's had a crush on since high school, Garfield takes it much more personally - and subsequently tricks the dog into spending the night outside. Not surprisingly, the following morning he's gone - leaving Garfield with no choice but to mount a rescue mission.

The film replicates all of Toy Story's major plot points - particularly the stuff involving Woody's quest to rescue Buzz, which he initiates both out of guilt and to win back the respect of his friends - though the cleverness and emotional resonance of that movie is absent here. The first half of the film, in fact, is peppered with the sort of lame humor and broad characterizations that seem to plague kid-oriented movies like this. Peter Hewitt's bland direction only exacerbates this problem, giving the film a distinctly made-for-television feel.

There are a few bright spots, most notably Murray's surprisingly energetic voice work. Though one can only assume the actor took the job for the hefty paycheck, Murray goes full-out - delivering an appropriately sarcastic and occasionally vigorous performance. In one of the more bizarre sequences, Garfield laments his new living conditions by crooning a takeoff on Billy Joel's New York State of Mind (which, naturally, becomes New Dog State of Mind). It's certainly an odd little interlude, but it works mainly because of Murray's zealousness.

It's fairly unexpected, then, when the movie becomes genuinely involving in its second half. As Garfield embarks on his trip to the big city and gets into various misadventures along the way, Sokolow and Cohen begin to imbue the story with a little creativity. An exodus from an animal control prison instigated by a British cat named Sir Ronald (voiced by Alan Cumming) is clearly the film's highlight, though the expansion of Stephen Tobolowsky's role as villain doesn't hurt either.

I've been told that Garfield has little in common with the comic strip and Saturday morning cartoon that inspired it, so fans of Jim Davis' creation might want to steer clear. However, with lowered expectations, the film comes off as an agreeable time waster.

The decision to humanize Garfield's eyes, though, still baffles me...

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