It's been commonly noted -- by this reviewer among many others -- that Bill Murray would be entertaining even if he were reciting the tax tables. That thesis is just about put to the test in "Garfield: The Movie," in which Murray, while not literally cracking open a copy of United States Internal Revenue Code, Title 26, is forced to recite dialogue with about as much zing. As the voice of the titular computer-generated cat, he conveys all the smug, snarky self-satisfaction of his persona in "Groundhog Day." Indeed Garfield, the lazy, gluttonous and self-absorbed star of the hugely popular comic strip, bears a striking resemblance to "Groundhog Day's" pompous weatherman, whose spiritual awakening provided surprisingly effective fodder for comedy.
Garfield, too, has a change of heart in his first feature film, even though by the end of the movie he's still pretty fat, lazy and selfish. And his transformation isn't the stuff of classic family comedy -- it's more like another chance to hit the multiplex with the kids once you've seen "Shrek 2" and the latest "Harry Potter." "Garfield: The Movie" is Hollywood cog-grinding at its most uninspired -- bland, workmanlike and instantly forgettable.
The movie opens with Garfield doing what he's best known for -- lying around the house, cadging snacks and manipulating his owner, Jon (Breckin Meyer), into doing his bidding. Once outside, he is just as imperious with his neighborhood friends; he routinely terrorizes and taunts a Doberman named Luca, and he tricks a cat named Nermal into helping him steal some milk, never offering his confederate a sip. (True to his literary roots, Garfield is the only animated character in an otherwise live-action movie.)
Frankly, Garfield isn't a very nice guy. And that becomes even more clear when Jon brings another pet into the household: a dog named Odie. Once this compulsive attention-grabber and affection-stealer hits the scene, Garfield goes into overdrive, bullying the pup off his favorite chair, engaging him in a fight that turns into a dance contest, and finally putting him out of the house altogether. Hurt, Odie runs away from home and falls into the clutches of an unscrupulous TV personality, who dresses him in a shock collar and lederhosen. (And really, which is worse?) Garfield, who eventually realizes that he misses his former nemesis, sets out to rescue him, aided and abetted by a menagerie of neighborhood animals.
It's difficult to pinpoint what has made the "Garfield" comic strip so popular -- it's read by an estimated 260 million people every day -- but the movie version suggests that the character's appeal may be best communicated on the page. Even when he decides to be a good guy, Garfield is rather unpleasant, and he's never very funny. Surely, though, fans will appreciate some inside jokes, including gags involving lasagna (Garfield's favorite food) and a shot in which he looks just like one of those obnoxious Garfield car window decals from a few years back. By far the best part of "Garfield: The Movie" are the real-life dogs, cats and mice that make up the film's supporting cast, especially when they stage an impressive jailbreak from the animal pound (for some viewers the best part may be Jennifer Love Hewitt as the most scantily clad animal doctor in veterinary history).
Indeed, in a victory for dog people everywhere, the bright orange computerized ball of fur that plays Garfield is consistently upstaged by Tyler and Chloe, two uncommonly gifted and charismatic mutts who play Odie. This stumpy, elongated little pup steals every scene that he's in, and he proves to be loads more watchable than his more famous but literally lifeless co-star. He twirls on his hind legs, chases his tail and allows himself to be insulted and shoved and shunted aside by the fat cat, all the time with soulful good humor. By the end of "Garfield: The Movie," the title character is just a distracting orange blur. Considering this breakout performance, the movie company may want to consider a new advertising tag line: You'll come for the cat, but you'll stay for the dog.
Garfield: The Movie (86 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG.