Few good things ever come from adapting a cartoon to live action. Even fewer good things come when you put Breckin Meyer and Jennifer Love Hewitt in it.
“Garfield,” the 2004 adaptation of Jim Davis’ beloved comic starring Bill Murray as the eponymous tabby, desecrates a classic on the level of urinating on Michelangelo’s “David.” The story follows the various misadventures of a fat orange tabby and his hapless owner Jon, played by Breckin Meyer. The main focus of the story is Jon’s adoption of Odie and his attempt to woo his veterinarian crush Liz, played by the crushingly dull Jennifer Love Hewitt.
This movie makes it clear right off the bat that it could care less about any established characterizations, aside from Garfield’s love of lasagna. Liz’s old snarky self, who avoids Jon at all costs, is replaced by a person who has character in the same way paper has flavor.
The choices made in characterization are mind-boggling. Garfield himself remains relatively intact, but everyone else is trying desperately to twist themselves into the roles needed to advance the narrative. In the comic proper, Liz didn’t stop despising Jon until about a year after this movie came out, but she’s flattened into a generic love interest in the film adaptation because that’s what the contrived narrative demands.
In a perfect world, this movie would have come out a few years ago and Liz would have been played by Aubrey Plaza as a wonderfully quick-witted cynic. But this is not a perfect world, so we’re stuck with Bland Love Interest Type A1: Successful Career Woman.
Am I dwelling on the Liz thing? Well, there’s really not a whole lot else to dwell on. The guiding narrative will lull you into a gentle sleep after a while, going from plot point to plot point, barely managing to justify what’s happening. Stephen Toblowsky plays the antagonist, the Happy Chapman, who exists for reasons unknown.
His goal is to kidnap Odie after seeing him dance at a dog show, and uses him to advance his career as a TV host. But he fails to answer the main question: why? Why does he need to exist? One of the draws of “Garfield” is its charming banality. It’s just life with a guy, his cat and his dog, albeit a cat with an overactive imagination.
For sake of comparison, let’s look at the “Peanuts” movie. Aside from some questionable soundtrack choices, the movie stuck to the simple, sincere charm of the comic strip. The story is straightforward: Charlie Brown wants to impress the little red-headed girl, something pulled from the classic comics. Why couldn’t “Garfield” do that?
Live-action is a thing that studios consider more lucrative. Garfield himself is hideously computer-generated, and meshes about as well with his environment as Donald Trump at a Pride parade. We’ve seen now that comic strip movies work when they’re animated. The various Peanuts movies have been proving that for decades. Maybe someday studios will realize that. And then maybe Satan can take a bobsled to work.