A monthlong series in which Mr. Dossey looks at feline films, fine or otherwise.
The Washington Post once asked me, ‘Why is it great features like Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side stopped and you’re still around?’ It’s simple. They were both brilliant, they worked extremely hard every day, trying for the perfect gag. They burned themselves out! Me, I feel that kind of pressure, I lower my standards.Jim Davis, creator of Garfield
Jim Davis graduated from Ball State University in 1967. I graduated in 2012. His time at the university was a joyous one, mine generally less so. It is what it is. I moved away from Muncie only to end up living there on and off for another few years while Aly finished school. During my post-student years, I grew to appreciate the city and region. Davis never left. He stayed in nearby Redkey and, in 1981, built the physical offices for PAWS, Inc. in New Albany. For almost 40 years, the exceptionally beautiful building on an unexceptional county road just 30 minutes north of Muncie housed a merchandising empire of world renown. In 2019, Davis sold PAWS to Nickelodeon and the office building was donated to the Ball State University Foundation, which is still auctioning it off. I don’t know who would buy it. Who would use it?
Although management of the intellectual property and production of the comic strip are no longer wholly local, Garfield’s paw prints remain on the area. Nearby Grant County, Indiana hosts a Garfield Trail, where curious travelers can find statues of the iconic tabby wearing clothing or displaying something special to that city. The Muncie Visitors Bureau was gifted over $10,000 worth of leftover merchandise. It’s a claim to fame, a trivia question. Davis has, in the past, lectured at his local alma mater. He and David Letterman may well be two of the most famous graduates in Ball State history, but only one stayed.
Just as Garfield’s presence is still felt in his longtime home, the mundane sensibilities of Indiana life translate into the character’s record-breaking syndication. Davis’s famous refusal to make Garfield political in any way and solely a trafficker of inane observations about life, sarcasm and silly cat gags feels like the most polite-to-your-face mainstream Hoosier shit imaginable. “I lower my standards” is a notable quote by Davis, a breathtakingly honest admission that the artistic aim of Garfield is pragmatically entwined with the capitalistic end result. A Hoosier admission.
It’s certainly worked out well for him financially, if not artistically, and like so much of the Indiana art scene, others have taken the opportunity to express themselves through the bland platform placed before them. Parodies of Garfield have been ubiquitous online since the dawn of the internet. Horrifying Lovecraftian visions, depressingly astute edits, weird cursed images (I’m not gonna link to those). As fucking dumb and meaningless as Indiana feels, there are innumerable artists who create beautiful work that run against the grain of what it is. And so Garfield himself endures, as do infinite variations on — and strange remixes of — his attitude and orange visage.
In any case, the comforting mediocrity that defines the Garfield property is the silver bullet of his 2004 silver-screen debut, aptly titled Garfield: The Movie, a film so blandly generic that voice actor and star Bill Murray has routinely found ways to absolve his agency in accepting the gig. He could just admit it was a paycheck, but for a time it was viewed at large as an all-time shit heap. So it may be! The story finds Garfield, as lazy and gluttonous as ever, forced to save his new dog pal, Odie, after a villain (Stephen Tobolowsky) kidnaps him to perform tricks on morning television.
No jokes are surprises. Every low-hanging fruit is picked off the pun tree. Garfield eats some delicious food? “Time to go off the Catkins diet.” His mouse friend gives him some info and needs to say goodbye? “Keep it squeal.” Etc, etc, ad infinitum. Garfield dances to “I Feel Good” multiple times, his CGI form meshing moderately well with the real scenery but looking strange around other dogs and cats. Odie and Nermal are characters from the comic strip but are portrayed by real animals. It’s an artistic choice likely made out of budgetary necessity, but like so many monetary decisions the creative result is maybe the most memorable aspect of the movie’s visual aesthetic.
You see, in Garfield: The Movie, Garfield, the animated creature, is the only real being in the movie. His owner, Jon (Breckin Meyer), is a cardboard-cutout human whose love interest, Liz the vet ( Jennifer Love Hewitt ), inexplicably shares a mutual attraction. “You’re not like other guys,” she tells him, and Garfield scoffs. Garfield has it down: Everyone in the world is a loser except him, and any lessons he learns are solely checkpoints in a mission to make sure his cushy home doesn’t change too much. What a motivation! Other characters orbit his journey, facing little to no individual conflict. See: Jon and Liz, who are immediately in love. This isn’t a complaint or a criticism, just admiration that the uncanny valley of Garfield’s transposition into live-action footage enhances the story being told.
Maybe it’s telling that the sole memorable element of Garfield: The Movie is a result of budgetary constraints rather than artistic vision. It is neither as unwatchable nor as terrible as its reputation portends. The first cinematic outing of Davis’s efficiently Midwestern meal ticket lives up to its franchise in every single possible way. Somewhat pleasant and only artistic by accident. A well-tuned droning noise in the back of the skull as it moves forward toward a simple climax and dance-number reprise.
While watching, I kept thinking about the urban legends Bill Murray created surrounding his role. By all accounts, Murray was a pleasure to work with, recording his lines on the set of The Live Aquatic with Steve Zissou, one of Wes Anderson’s most impenetrably captivating depictions of spiritual ennui. Imagining Murray shifting from Zissou to Garfield is just delightful. One could even argue there are bits of detached sadness in his performance of Garfield, but that’s probably projecting. Still, Murray took the role knowing what he was doing and worked at the film enthusiastically, even taking on the role in a sequel. Later, though, he made up stories about thinking the writer, Joel Cohen, was Joel Coen of the famous Coen brothers. He quipped about not reading the script before recording his lines. He pleaded ignorance about Garfield in general.
Murray’s tall tales are progenitors to Garfield Minus Garfield, imsorryjon and the legion of bizarre re-imaginations and reinterpretations of the famous cat. Garfield: The Movie made enough money for a sequel (subtitled A Tale of Two Kitties) but is honestly pretty lame. Like the rest of its franchise, though, it spawned something particular in the web of social consciousness that is expressed in contemporary parlance through internet memes and shared mythology.
Davis may have never set his sights higher than making an honest living churning out middlebrow comic strips about a cat and then subsequently licensing them from an office in the middle of fucking nowhere, Indiana. Power to him. Power to everyone else, though, who lives here and whose artistic expressions erupt from the thundering banality of the Hoosier work ethic. Indiana is a pretty boring place, but Garfield’s wide recognizability as an icon of well-managed commercial art, and subsequent worldwide subversion, reminds me that there’s beauty to be found here, too.