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By Pete Vonder Haar | June 13, 2004

Movie studios are notorious for exploiting a popular cultural phenomenon and throttling it until the moviegoing public eventually tires of paying to watch. Hollywood’s gone bananas for post-“Star Wars” science fiction, youngsters unexpectedly turning old in the wake of “Big,” and sarcastic post-modern horror a la Kevin Williams, just to name a few recent examples. Given this, it’s a bit stupefying that Fox would put out a “Garfield” movie a full 20 years after the eponymous comic strip’s popularity had peaked.

Everyone remembers “Garfield:” the ubiquitous suction cup plush toys that adorned every Chrysler Caravan in the 1980s; the comic strip compilation books that were seemingly released every equinox; the cast of characters who were so well-drawn they sported three whole facial expressions (except for Odie, I think he had two). Problem is, the strip stopped being mandatory suburban refrigerator decoration around the time of the first Bush Administration. Better strips have come (and, in the case of “Calvin and Hobbes,” gone) in that time, and “Garfield” now shares the dubious “Does anybody read this crap anymore?” niche with the likes of “The Family Circus” and “Snuffy Smith.” Does the fact that we’re finally seeing a “Garfield” movie mean creator Jim Davis has discovered a new perspective for his characters? Does he have something new to say about his cartoon world?

Grievously, no. “Garfield” remains one of the most shamelessly marketed properties of all time, so the inevitable feature film is merely the logical climax to a product blitz that already includes bowling balls, oven mitts, and a line of Richard Petty-related products (there was also a cartoon released at some point). True to form, the film is packed with references to how much Garfield loves lasagna and hates Mondays. But if “Garfield: The Movie” succeeds at all, it’s in the way Davis has so adroitly capped off his decades-long merchandising blitzkrieg.

Trouble is, “Garfield: The Movie” isn’t made for fans of the comic strip. Oh sure, the titular cat is fat, cantankerous, and sarcastic, but his owner Jon (Breckin Meyer) is simply a well-meaning (if generally befuddled) guy, rather than the clueless boob of the comic. Jon’s love interest, the veterinarian Liz (Jennifer Love Hewitt) actually shares Jon’s attraction, and Odie is no longer a googly-eyed slobber machine, but just a regular dog. In fact, Garfield is the only animated character in a film desperate for a more outrageous supporting cast. Fox is obviously trying to aim for a younger demographic, as the ample belches, farts, and feline a*s-shaking demonstrate, but they’ve chosen a hopelessly weak vehicle to go up against summer juggernauts like Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Shrek 2.

The threadbare plot involves Jon taking in Odie as a favor to Liz, much to Garfield’s dismay. When Odie is dognapped by an evil TV host, however, the lethargic cat springs into action to rescue his new roommate, making sure to mix in some “extreme” staircase surfing and more product placements than I’ve seen since “Josie and the Pussycats” (I counted three overt Wendy’s references, though there may have been more). People will temper their criticism of “Garfield: The Movie” by reminding us it’s “for kids” and therefore shouldn’t be held to the same rigorous standards as other movies. Unfortunately, that argument only works when your finished product isn’t a cynical attempt to cash in on a recognizable character by coaxing your wide-eyed audience into buying Goldfish crackers and Pepsi, as is the case with “Garfield: The Movie.”

What about Bill Murray? Good question. Anyone who thinks Murray is above material like this after his Lost in Translation accolades should remember it was just a few years ago he was doing movies like Charlie’s Angels and “Larger than Life.” The man has never been that discriminating. Garfield comes across like Peter Venkman’s dumber, furrier nephew, and Murray throws himself into every obvious joke and unfunny one-liner. He earns his paycheck, but it’s nowhere near enough to salvage the disaster unspooling onscreen.

The funniest thing about “Garfield: The Movie” is only indirectly related to the film itself; it was when I realized that Bill Murray-as-Garfield singing James Brown’s “I Feel Good” is actually less funny than Murray’s brother John’s anti-gravity rendition of the same song from 1985’s “Moving Violations.” And that’s saying something. The best way for Fox to atone for releasing this shameless pile of crap is in the manner befitting all unwanted kittens: put all the negatives in a bag filled with rocks and sink them in a very deep river. Sprinkle some garlic over the water for good measure, to make sure the movie never rises to torment the living again.

No kittens were harmed in the writing of this review.
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