The Garfield Movie review – foul feline origin tale is littered with product placement

Estimated read time 5 min read

There’s not that much to Garfield. Understanding the orange tabby of funny-pages repute is pretty simple: he has a set of integral, inalienable traits – his ill temperament, his cynical outlook, his sedentary lifestyle, his motivation primarily in self-interest and his indifference to owner Jon Arbuckle – that define the grouchy yet likable pop-cultural fixture. Any depiction of a Garfield that eschews these qualities, even while adhering to such superficial markers as his love of lasagne or hatred of Mondays, ceases to be Garfield at all and instead becomes a common cat by any other name, no different than Get Fuzzy’s Bucky, or worse, the godless bastard Heathcliff. In fact, insofar as Garfield-ness is inscribed from the feline personality model projected on to cats by humans, a Garfield in spite of himself may as well be a dog, an unnatural oxymoron with nothing to distinguish himself from the rest of the herd.

The makers of The Garfield Movie chose not to heed this ontological lesson in their approach to Jim Davis’s blueprint. The all-new, all-animated vehicle for the newspaper comic-strip fixture mutates him into an on-trend, readily marketable rebrand of himself. Given slightly larger eyes and a slightly smaller mouth to up the cuteness factor on some of his expression models, this Garfield has softened his rougher edges, even going so far as to relax his staunch anti-Odie stance. To be fair, director Mark Dindal and the writing brain trust of Paul Kaplan, Mark Torgove and David Reynolds had to do something, the source material’s premise of “lazy a-hole cat mostly just sits around” fighting the narrative needs of cinema. But audiences have spent decades of mornings with Garfield. We know Garfield. Garfield is a friend of ours. Senator, Chris Pratt is no Garfield.

What this is is something far more mercenary and insidious, belied by the cheery art direction and zippy Looney Tunes slackening of the laws of physics. (A couple of inspired sight gags harken back to Dindal’s past successes The Emperor’s New Groove and Cats Don’t Dance, but the animators have much to answer for; why were so many man-hours dedicated to rendering each individual hair on every critter’s body while the Italian food we’re meant to crave looks like textureless plastic glop?) We’re shown that this isn’t your daddy’s Garfield not just in his stale notion of irreverent ’tude that tops out at calling himself “G-Money”, but in his hipness to the modern world, first signaled by the delight and ease with which he orders drone delivery through a smartphone app. He’ll soon proudly tout his affinities for Olive Garden as well as the services of Walmart and FedEx, along with passing mentions for Tinder, Bumble, Shark Tank, Netflix, Roomba and, most egregiously considering what we know of Garfield’s diet, Popchips. Even within the realm of craven product placement, there should be some logic to sell the synergy. Was Stouffer’s not interested? Did Chef Boyardee give a hard pass?

This shameless shilling comes packaged in an equally offensive story that foists Hollywood’s au courant fixation with intergenerational trauma on to a character heretofore occupied above all with napping and eating. Turns out that Garfield has a deadbeat dad named Vic (Samuel L Jackson, his presence such that an adult viewer spends the entirety of the run time waiting for this kitty to drop an F-bomb), who shows up just in time to beg his estranged son for help in a daring milk-bottle heist to pay off the vindictive Persian cat Jinx (Ted Lasso’s Hannah Waddingham, just one in a cast packed with supporting players from buzzy TV shows instead of voice actors). The film would like to give itself shape with the layup sentimentality of reconciliation between father and son, but the schematic writing mistakes children’s immaturity for unintelligence. And speaking of stuntedness, a climactic emotional gesture from Vic services the absentee-dad dream of having hard proof to show your kid that even though you never contacted them, you definitely meant to.

Parental apologia, drones being our friends, Popchips – put plainly, these are not things that someone trying to have a good time with their pal Garfield should have to think about. And it’s not as if this is some Calvin and Hobbes-level sacred cow we’re talking about, the bar for integrity with a property as thin as this one set pretty low. The resultant feeling of disappointment, an injury more personal than merely being a bad movie, poses a market quandary that should be on the mind of every executive furthering the IP onslaught that shows no signs of slowing. At what point is the built-in recognition of a familiar name no longer worth the heightened expectations that come with it? Or, to rephrase the very same existential crisis Garfield contends with as he processes his lingering psychical wounds from childhood abandonment, would he not have lived a better life as any other cat?

  • The Garfield Movie is out in US and UK cinemas on 24 May


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