20 Years Later, The First Live-Action Garfield Movie is a Bizarre Beast Devoid of Modern Fan-Service Flourishes

Garfield and his creator, Jim Davis, at the Garfield: The Movie Premiere in Los Angeles in 2004
Garfield and his creator, Jim Davis, at the Garfield: The Movie Premiere in Los Angeles in 2004 / Vince Bucci/GettyImages

There's a very rigorous approach to executing a modern movie adaptation of any beloved source material. To paraphrase Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain, “reverence, always reverence!”. Marketing materials for these legacy sequels are executed in slow-motion while voice-over narration from famous artists solemnly intones about their lifelong attachment to The Snorks. This phenomenon has become so rampant that blockbusters now contain homages to movies that never actually existed! Case in point: 2023’s The Flash featured a lengthy tribute to an unmade Nicolas Cage Superman movie, complete with a gigantic spider duel!

Given how rampant this cinematic approach is, it's easy to forget this wasn’t always the norm in Hollywood. There was a time when a Mario movie adaptation would’ve emphasized people getting turned into fungus rather than anything from the actual games. In decades past, a World War Z movie would share nothing more with its source material than its name. Hollywood’s cynicism takes on many forms. Today, it’s simulating reverence for the past and exploiting nostalgia. Previously, though, that cynicism took the form of taking a familiar brand name and slapping it on a knock-off of an already-popular movie. Perhaps nothing better exemplifies the latter trend than the 2004 motion picture Garfield: The Movie.

Hailing from Thunderpants auteur Peter Hewitt, Garfield: The Movie was adapted from the famous newspaper comic Garfield that first started running in newspapers in 1978. Classic Garfield comics had their humorous moments, especially when the titular lead was drawn especially chunky or engaging in inexplicably brutal violent behavior. However, it didn’t have the deep pathos of Peanuts. Nor did it have the expansive fantastical tableaus of Krazy Kat or Calvin & Hobbes. The comic’s supporting cast, meanwhile, didn't conjure up the word "sprawling". Typical comics only focused on tabby Garfield, dim-witted dog companion Odie, and their nerdy owner Jon Arbuckle. Not a deep ensemble of characters to draw from.

If one translated Garfield into a movie, creative liberties would occur. That’s a perfectly fine concept. No piece of non-film media translates into cinema in a 1:1 fashion. Changes aren’t just inevitable, they’re welcome. What’s fascinating about Garfield: The Movie’s changes are how they don't make Garfield more "cinematic". Instead, it’s as if writers Joel Cohen and Alec Sokolow threw several 1990s family movies into a blender and eventually stuck the Garfield name onto the end result.

The proper plot of Garfield: The Movie concerns Garfield (Bill Murray). His cushy life gets upended when his owner, Jon Arbuckle (Breckin Meyer), takes home a dog named Odie. The adversarial rivalry between the duo is firmly rooted in the comics. There, Garfield’s initial hatred for Odie’s existence quickly became muted once he realized how much power he wielded over the canine. In the context of Hewitt’s movie, their animosity is anything but brief. It also heavily evokes the Woody/Buzz Lightyear sibling rivalry of Toy Story. The familiar narrative elements don't end there, though. There's also an eventual plot of Odie's kidnapping and Garfield rescuing the pooch. This section of the story reminds one of countless 1990s features like Homeward Bound concerning canines separated from their homes. 

Garfield’s 1980s merchandising boon echoed other rampantly licensed pop culture figures like Snoopy and Mickey Mouse. Perhaps it’s inevitable Garfield: The Movie emulated major family movie narratives. Still, it’s perversely fascinating how Garfield: The Movie is more interested in other movies rather than its source material. Modern adaptations of pop culture institutions bend over backward to reference memes or bring back beloved side characters. Garfield: The Movie, meanwhile, shows little interest in its comic book roots.

This is best exemplified by how only the fully CG Garfield really resembles his comic book counterpart. Every other animal on-screen is a live-action critter with digital lips. The adorable grey kitten Nermal is here realized as a Siamese cat who isn't noticeably younger than Garfield. Garfield's love interest Arlene, meanwhile, is now a Russian Blue cat. No longer is she rendered as a bright pink cat with a gap between her teeth. As for Odie, his yellow coloring from the comics and persistently massive slobbery tongue have vanished. He’s instead depicted as a live-action Dachshund. This alteration presumably occurred to evoke a more "helpless" aura in the character.

We now live in a world where the internet exploded because of Sonic the Hedgehog's original movie design. The mind reels at what would’ve transpired if Garfield: The Movie had tried these Odie, Arlene, and Nermal designs today. Entire streets would’ve been shut down, the stock market would collapse, and an apocalypse would've descended on the land. These generic realistic approaches to Garfield’s animal companions are accompanied by a total absence of any supporting human characters from the comics (save for Arbuckle’s crush, Dr. Liz Wilson). There’s no Irma, Binky the Clown, or Lyman here. If anyone has any attachment to Garfield's supporting cast, they'll leave Garfield: The Movie disappointed.

Garfield: The Movie’s loosey-goosey approach to its mythos even extends to making Jon Arbuckle a sexier creature. For much of Garfield's history, Arbuckle's persona was a helpless loser who couldn’t get a date to save his life. Though that would later change by the 2010s, the dork era of comics Jon Arbuckle was still going strong circa. 2004. For Garfield: The Movie, though, Arbuckle is played by the conventionally attractive Meyer. His portrayal of this character as being more awkward than hopelessly terrible around women. One can imagine that this version of Jon Arbuckle has been in a relationship before, a bold swing for any incarnation of the character.

On and on the changes go, right down to a lengthy action-packed climax. That finale involves Garfield wielding control of a train system control room to save Odie from Happy Chapman (Stephen Tobolowsky). Watching Garfield nearly set the events of Unstoppable into action isn’t something one immediately imagines when the Garfield comic is brought up. In this domain, the tension mostly revolves around whether or not Garfield will steal Jon’s dinner. However, such a “tense” finale full of potentially colliding trains is just what summer blockbusters tend to employ. Garfield: The Movie’s willingness to overhaul its source material to adhere to conventional cinema standards endures right to the end.

Garfield as a comic is famous for its low narrative stakes and the innate laziness of its titular lead. Some infamous comics barely feature any of the characters moving across three panels. Such lethargy wouldn't last for a 90-minute movie. Inevitably, Garfield: The Movie inevitably made significant changes to the world of this orange feline. Such alterations weren’t even necessarily because the comic was perceived as “flawed” by Hollywood, though. This was just the normal approach for adapting source material in the 2000s. Projects from this era like The Dukes of HazzardDragonball: EvolutionFantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, and countless others featured highly controversial overhauls to their respective points of origin.

In an age before social media or the legacy sequel, such approaches were standard course for Hollywood. Fan outrage could exist, but major studios didn't guide their projects by the whims of what fans would want. It was more important to mold projects like The Seeker: The Dark is Rising into Harry Potter clones, for example, than appease long-time devotees. Decades later, Garfield: The Movie is a microcosm of this phenomenon. The popularity of Garfield toys and transporting this kitty into a typical family movie narrative guided the projects storytelling instincts. Fidelity to the source material wasn't a priority.

Ironically, trying to be so much like other past beloved family movies did Garfield: The Movie did no favors in its general reputation. The title alienated long-time Garfield fans. Meanwhile, general audiences who didn’t care for the comic weren’t enamored with such a derivative production. It didn’t matter whether certain flaws in Garfield: The Movie were also alterations to the source material. They were just underwhelming artistic flourishes in any context. 20 years later, it’s hard to imagine a major Garfield movie would emerge exactly like Garfield: The Movie. (though the ubiquity of new characters in May 2024's The Garfield Movie potentially suggests otherwise). However, that’s more of a testament to how Hollywood’s cynicism has evolved. That status quo shift doesn't reflect greater quality control existing in this industry. Now that’s a status quo that’ll make anyone as grouchy as that son of a gun, that cat, that gigantic thing, Garfield.

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