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For many years Jim Davis’ enormously successful Garfield cartoons have been delighting readers of all generations around the world. Such was the pasta-loving feline’s success in print (not just books and newspapers, of course, but on t-shirts, boxer shorts, posters, you name it …), it was only a matter of time before he started coughing hairballs in other media formats. Apparently read by some 263 million people across eleven countries, the animated cartoon was a natural succession and managed to capture some of the character’s essential qualities and his love-while-use-and-abuse relationships with owner John and the dog Odie. How does his latest reincarnation fare in the double-disc digital world?

Garfield: The Movie
Film
Garfield comfortably introduces us to the world of the famous feline. He’s the smug, selfish, humoured cat of yore, prone to napping, binge eating and bullying his owner, Jon Arbuckle (Breckin Meyer). He swaggers about his neighbourhood teasing the other cats and dogs, content with the way life is and will always be. Big fat hairy deal.

Jon is infatuated with the local vet Liz Wilson (Jennifer Love Hewitt) and has been regularly visiting with Garfield as pretence to get closer to her. On the latest visit, Jon’s eagerness to please sees him adopting a charismatic pup, Odie. The new tail-chasing arrival in the Arbuckle household proves to be a nauseating event for Garfield and he soon takes to putting Odie in his place.

It’s not long before Garfield begrudgingly develops affection, even friendship, for Odie – mostly through the power of the shared dance routine. He’s still responsible, though, for shutting Odie out and letting him go AWOL. When scheming animal TV presenter Happy Chapman (Stephen Tobolowsky) dognaps him to make his fortune, Garfield has to think of someone other than himself and go to the rescue.

Director Peter Hewitt (The Borrowers) has tried to include the stalwarts of the Garfield world in this film. The attitude and sense of humour translate well (this is no surprise given the comic strips’ easy-going accessibility), lasagne gobbling is present and correct, as is midnight crooning, TV watching, vet courtship and friendly dog bullying. This is all established fairly early on. Starting things in a pre-Odie era means that much of the Garfield lifestyle, known to many for so long, is actually a new state of affairs within the film’s own reality. This may be a move of foresight, with a view to setting up the characters for further sequels. I hope sincerely this will not be the case.

Garfield is a bright, colourful but ultimately flat affair. In an era of Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, a family flick that wants to score well with children and parents alike has to work hard. This is, in comparison, a lacklustre effort. There is nothing to really hold the attention as the action moves from one slow set piece to the next and ultimately the fault lies with a painfully weak script. I think this actually undermines even a youngster’s overall experience of the piece. Even so, its narrative arc of rejection-friendship-villain-rescue-resolution plays firmly to that youngster and with this the younger generation may be kept amused for a viewing or two. For adults, it may prove to utterly predictable. The speed with which Garfield develops a friendship with Odie is a prime example of how badly contrived things are. It also makes a travesty of the Garfield’s learnt and loved spirit rather than the homage it should be.

Garfield: The Movie
The CGI animation is on the whole a plus for the film, technically. The overweight Garfield pads around various locations with genuine feline motion that’s intriguing to watch at first. Unfortunately, Garfield is a strip cartoon cat. Having him be so life-like in some way detracts from really buying him as the Garfield that 263 million readers around the globe have come to picture in their own minds. This, of course, may not bother younger viewers in the slightest.

The cast do their best pretending to handle and cuddle nothing most of the time and generally pull it off, except for a few sub-Roger Rabbit oversights. In fact the Odie dog pulls this off better than most. The always watchable Stephen Tobolowsky provides much needed vigour but both Meyer and Hewitt are blandness personified. There’s little to help us really care about either of them or their relationship.

Bill Murray, of course, provides the voice of Garfield and it’s a choice that on paper makes perfect, unarguable sense. In execution it just doesn’t work as well as you think it could or should. For a comedic actor of immense subtlety and vocal range, his Garfield is basically quite dull and uninspiring. It’s as if Murray himself doesn’t believe that the script’s as savvy and smart as it’s trying to be. He’s an actor well known for being able to show his contempt for material he feels is poor whilst still turning in a serviceable performance. That tone of subversion is ever-present. I can only imagine he was paid a ludicrous amount of money or signed the wrong contract at the wrong time.

Video
The film itself is far from satisfying, but the 1.85:1 transfer to DVD is certainly more praiseworthy. It helps that everything’s been filmed in bright, cheery primary colours and these are almost without fail flawlessly rendered. Blacks stay black and lines remain sharp and crisp. The picture’s always solid and is a credit to Garfield’s animation throughout – perhaps too much so; a little roughing may have helped him matte in with his surroundings more believably. Still, none of this detracts from the film’s overall weakness.

Audio
The film’s sound quality is uniformly passable throughout. The 5.1 soundtrack is barely used and this lets the experience down considerably. Pretty much all the dialogue is confined to the front stereo speakers, which doesn’t help you engage much with an already problematic film. Bass sounds are kept family-friendly and just about rumble in adequately with no surprises. The surrounds are on the whole under-used too, only coming alive when the film’s score periodically draws another ‘comic’ moment to a close. On occasion they provide a little more atmosphere, such as Garfield’s swooshing stairwell descent, the sounds of nature outside, and train effects for the film’s denouement at the station. Otherwise they could do with a little more exercise. There are hard of hearing subtitles in English.

Garfield: The Movie
Extras
Disc One:

The disc does itself no immediate favours by interspersing trailers for Two Brothers, Magic Roundabout and Strawberry Shortcake with Maltesers adverts. Once these are over the simple menu system offers an audio commentary, deleted scenes, two games, two featurettes, a trailer and a peak at Robots.

The audio commentary features director Peter Hewitt and Producer John Davis. It’s clear from this commentary that Hewitt and Davis are Garfield fans and they’ve enjoyed bringing the film to life. Their excitement is persuasive up to a point yet becomes so unfaltering in its praise of the subject and the shoot that it slips into a one-sided advert for the film. This is a shame as it detracts from their insights into setting scenes up with a mind to the complicated animations to follow in post-production. They bring it on themselves though.

There are a number of deleted scenes that cover a variety of different perspectives on the film. Some are simply omitted scenes, such as Garfield cracking onto Arlene, the dog show introductions, and several moments with Stephen Tobolowsky.
Two scenes which go on for too long show dancers from the Millennium Dance Complex apparently losing themselves whilst choreographing the Garfield and Odie dance routine. An early stage animation of the finished scene shows that the dancer’s hard work doesn’t seem to be reflected too much in the finished project.
The first looks at the CGI processes begin here with scenes of rudimentary animated from the film or that were cut altogether scenes. We get to see a Garfield-shaped polygon in shot rather than the finished deal, showing how shots of the live animals were matted in with both location shots and Garfield’s animations. There are some scenes using a stuffed toy for correct framing and to help the actors along.

The Find Odie Maze Game is a very basic 2D affair using the directional buttons on the remote. It’s clunky, faltering and not much fun for a kid of any age.

Using original cartoon images, Mixing Moments with Garfield allows you to choose to insert different posturing Garfields, Odies and other characters into a selection of backgrounds. And that’s it – there’s no animation and you can’t select where on the background the items can go. It takes moments to exhaust all possibilities.

Garfield: Bringing the Cat to Life starts off with fairly formulaic behind the scenes footage of the shooting process. The featurette then focuses on how the animation teams recreated the environments virtually and eventually focuses on the extensive work to model a real cat-like CG Garfield. Things get quite interesting when talk turns to the full-size muscle and bone model used to simulate skeletal tone and flexing. At less than seven minutes, though, it’s just too short. The footage and the talking heads retrospectively make the deleted scenes of step-one animation feel more a part of the package, but combining these scenes within the featurette would have made for a more wholesome extra.

Multi-Angle Content – Grab A Number 2 Pencil: The Evolution of Garfield is by far the best feature on disc one, this short featurette has Garfield creator Jim Davis discussing how his cartoon drawings evolved over the years. Davis demonstrates this with large sketches on the pad before him as he talks. There’s a choice of two angle shots, one in front of Davis, the other permanently looking over his shoulder as he draws. Davis comes across as an affable character, completely at ease with his creation and profession.

Gone Nutty is a copy of the nut-collecting animated short from the Ice Age disc is one of the better features. As an example of slick CG cartoon animation combined with a talent for visual comedy it’s only several minutes long and still manages to show up Garfield somewhat.

Next up we have Inside Look in which director Chris Wedge (Ice Age) provides a taster of his latest animation film, Robots – the piece is definitely simple in tone and targeted squarely at the younger audience, introducing the plot and various ‘cast’ members as engagingly as possible. The numerous excepts provide an insight into a rather twee plot and some intriguing moments of animation - although what’s shown looks like a cross between Antz and I, Robot and is unlikely to trouble Pixar.

Garfield: The Movie
Disc Two:

The second disc has five featurettes, and an interactive component. Multi-Angles is the most engaging feature of the pack. Six short scenes from the film are broken down into (up to five) easily selectable angles, enabling the different stages of filming and animation to be viewed sequentially, building up the final, composite image. The most intriguing is the last ‘Storyboard to Film Comparison’ with two angles that flit between the final sequences and the original sketches for the shots. It provides an insight into the actual filmmaking process rather than the animation (again).

The Birth of Garfield features the soft-spoken Jim Davis discussing his own up-bringing and the genesis of his most successful cartoon character. With family photos supporting his anecdotes, Garfield fans will immediately see in Davis’ farmyard early years the inspiration for the regular strips that saw slicker Jon and Garfield visit Jon’s farmer parents. Family members also pitch in, very supportively speaking well of their most famous relation (the soundtrack, however, swells with elegiac strings and horns at this point, which is off-putting and unnecessary)
Davis is very open about being motivated by the likes of Schultz’s Peanuts and B.C. by John L. Hart, which in turn inevitably lays his own creation in the same hall of fame.

With easy-on-the-ear detail, Davis chronicles how Garfield developed in his mind and on the page, from the struggles to get syndication, to the development of Odie and the humour of the strips, it’s a mostly pleasant quarter of an hour or so.

The Rise of Garfield traces the world domination of Garfield from simple strip to a huge, multi-billion dollar industry in its own right. Encompassing everything from American fetes in the character’s honour to the enormously successful merchandising (especially the phenomenon of the ubiquitous car window cuddly toy), it’s a slightly, unintentionally, disturbing look at how good humour and art can get parcelled and packaged to make dollars, dollars, dollars. Of course, this success led to the animated series, and, ultimately, to this film.

From Strip to Script focuses on bridging the cartoon marvel to the film. Again, Davis features, but much less so as the featurette is given over the film’s producers and stars. It’s embarrassing to hear Breckin Meyer (Jon) wax lyrical about the film appealing to adult audiences as well so that the kids can grow up to appreciate it in more depth later. Please. There are more talking heads talking about animating the heads (tails, bodies, etc), again.

In the Ilustrated Technical Commentary, visual and digital FX supervisors provide a commentary over the breakdown of various animations scenes. There are more detailed expositions than elsewhere on the discs with some white pen scribed over the image to punctuate the commentary at times. By the time you get this far animation over-kill is congealing in your food-bowl. It does come across as a slightly desperate attempt to plump out the disc. These guys know and like what they’re talking about, but I can’t escape feeling that it would have been more satisfying to combine all the animation info into one or two substantial features. It wanders close to becoming the DVD equivalent of picking over the same morsels of ante pasta, when all you want is a sizeable pan of Bolognese. It is most telling that Bill Murray does not feature in any of these extras.

Garfield: The Movie
Overall
Garfield is obviously made to appeal to much younger audiences. However, as a demographic they’re at least ten years behind the full-swing Garfield phenomenon and so don’t have the franchise experience and history that their parents will. That leaves them with a film that tries to be a wholesomely funny and entertaining kiddie piece. Sadly, it just doesn’t seem enthralling and entertaining enough. As for the adults, the extras play to the nostalgia of remembering how good Garfield used to be but don’t compensate for a movie that seems lacklustre in its respect for its cartoon heritage. Sadly, Garfield leaves its hero’s former glory out in the cold, lamenting how his dream of a forever-replenishing lasagne pan turned into the reality of a stale litter tray.


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