The Garfield Movie Isn’t as Lazy as It Could Be

Movies Reviews mark dindal
The Garfield Movie Isn’t as Lazy as It Could Be

It’s a fool’s errand, trying to assign consistent authorship to the directors of American big-studio animation. Beyond the occasional Brad Bird who makes movies that are unmistakably his, house styles in these movies depend more on the overall production team that might fuse together a particular sense of humor with a particular drawing style (like Sony’s squash-and-stretch revival, or Illumination’s frenetic hackwork and obsession with weird little close-set eyes). Mark Dindal provides a perfect example: After directing the cultishly appreciated, Looney Tunes-indebted Cats Don’t Dance, he helped turn Disney’s The Emperor’s New Groove from a troubled epic into a similarly scrappy combination of slapstick and sincerity. But sometimes the studio machinery simply churns along mercilessly, and Dindal had no such luck directing the fairly abysmal Chicken Little for the very same studio where he helped save Groove, putting no discernible stamp on it at all.

This is to say that there’s no particular reason to expect Dindal’s talent to shine through on The Garfield Movie, a rights-expiration party from no animation studio in particular. Technically, yes, there this one: The movie was animated by DNEG, a firm without a strong identity of its own, having finished up the work started by Blue Sky on the wonderful Nimona for Netflix, followed by the barely-seen Under the Boardwalk, a straight-to-video feature from Paramount. Despite the parent conglomerate, this isn’t a Sony Pictures Animation movie from the team that made Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs or Hotel Transylvania; even more than those family-movie franchises, it’s a product relaunch, designed to bring the feline comic-strip and cartoon-show staple, created and brand-managed by Jim Davis, into the lucrative world of big-screen CG animation while enhancing his cuteness (and presumably his lucrativeness) by 20 to 35 percent. And hey, why does he have to be so mean to his dog sidekick Odie, anyway? Don’t kids like it more when cats and dogs nuzzle up to each other with empathy, rather than kick each other off of tables?

Yet despite all this corporate positioning, despite the softening of Garfield’s behavior and the flattening of his voice – now provided by Chris Pratt in a match as inexplicable as his MarioThe Garfield Movie does actually play a bit like a cartoon from the director of Cats Don’t Dance and The Emperor’s New Groove. In place of the characteristic yet dispiriting indolence of the “live-action” Garfield movies of the 2000s – which became an accidental Ponzi scheme when the name Joel H. Cohen on the original’s screenplay supposedly convinced Bill Murray he was signing on to a movie associated with Joel Coen, from the famous filmmaking siblings – is an amusing slapstick adventure with some comic-strip zip.

Pratt’s Garfield offers a trailer-ready prologue where he explains how, as an adorable puffball kitten, he was abandoned by his “outdoor cat” father Vic (Samuel L. Jackson), and adopted by the lonely Jon Arbuckle (Nicholas Hoult) over the rapacious consumption of Italian food. The pair is soon joined by Odie (Harvey Guillén), a chipper dog of indeterminate breed; whatever his lineage, he’s a less purely dopey variation than his comics counterpart, here often cast as the (wordless) voice of reason. Garfield and Odie’s domestic bliss – Garfield’s composed largely of eating, Odie’s of faithful servitude – is shattered by Jinx (Hannah Waddingham), a cat who ropes Garfield into a vengeful plot against his shiftless dad.

The meager anti-spectacle of Garfield – traditionally sardonic, sarcastic, sedentary – working through the kind of daddy issues favored by middle-aged screenwriters should be deflating. But as the harebrained plot moves toward a coerced dairy-farm heist to be perpetrated by Garfield, Odie, Vic and a cranky old bull (Ving Rhames), The Garfield Movie gets weirder, sillier and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny. As such, the movie forms a contrast with Garfield’s adventures on the comics page, where he’s been coasting for decades, the strip’s once-expressive minimalism often reduced to its background-free bones. For all the dopey emotional stuff, Dindal and his writers – a pair of sitcom guys and one of his New Groove collaborators – seem more engaged in propelling action through their gags, which the animators bring to life with split-second timing often missing from the autopilot strip.

I cannot claim to understand why The Garfield Movie has a surprising number of Pulp Fiction cast members, or why it borrows theme music from two different Paramount-made Tom Cruise movies. Even regarding its source material, there are questions: Why are the filmmakers so weirdly stingy with the comic strip’s side characters? It’s not exactly a deep bench that demands saving Nermal, Arlene or Lyman for the sequel. (For that matter, Davis had a whole other comic strip’s worth of farm characters from U.S. Acres, further immortalized on the Saturday-morning show Garfield and Friends. To set much of The Garfield Movie on and around a farm and not utilize any of those animals seems odd, maybe a further sign that fealty to Davis lore was, understandably, not first in mind.) It’s also easier to imagine even more of the movie’s jokes landing with a more idiosyncratic voice actor than Pratt; there’s no need for him to imitate the symbiosis of Bill Murray and Lorenzo Music (who twice shared roles; they both divvied up animated and live-action versions of Garfield and the Ghostbuster Peter Venkman), but perhaps he might have felt a pressing urge to do something beyond playing Garfield as a generic kid-movie version of a lovable slacker who occasionally endorses modern-dystopia products and services (and also Olive Garden, who gets backhandedly shouted out as a favored destination of both the world’s most gluttonous creature and voice-acting’s most questionable Italian).

Then again, does it even make sense to ding a Garfield performer for laziness, or a Garfield movie for excessive merchandising opportunities? This is not a soulful revival of Cats Don’t Dance or a triumphant farce on the level of The Emperor’s New Groove, but it does make use of Dindal’s enthusiasm and energy to get more laughs (and stumble over fewer non-jokes) than the average big-studio cartoon, delivered at a pace that’s more merry than frenzied. All told, it’s a surprisingly good time. The Garfield Movie may be as disposable as one of those numbered paperbacks that ex-kids of a certain age may fondly recall from their Scholastic book orders, but it approximates their sense of fun, too.

Director: Mark Dindal
Writer: Paul A. Kaplan, Mark Torgove, David Reynolds
Starring: Chris Pratt, Samuel L. Jackson, Hannah Waddingham, Ving Rhames, Nicholas Hoult
Release Date: May 24, 2024

Jesse Hassenger is associate movies editor at Paste. He also writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including GQ, Decider, Vulture, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching or listening to, and which terrifying flavor of Mountain Dew he has most recently consumed.

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