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Lacking big laughs, 'Garfield' goes to the dogs

"Garfield: The Movie" isn't a crime against nature like last December's "The Cat in the Hat." It will please younger children -- who really only require that a film move fast, make sense, and be colorful -- while keeping their older siblings inoffensively narcotized for 75 minutes. Adults may find it a toothless, harmless, mostly charmless mongrel movie that mixes live-action actors and animals with a computer-generated version of the comic strip cat that Jim Davis created in 1978 and has since cross-marketed into the ground. But at least it's not Dr. Seuss this movie limply sells out -- just a strip that may be the most laugh-free item on the funnies page next to "Cathy."

Maybe I'm being unkind; a black-dressing young intellectual of my acquaintance recently ascribed a "lazy generosity" to Garfield and his daily antics. If so, the movie gets the laziness but misses the generosity. Bill Murray appears only as the voice of Garfield and, truth be told, the actor's goofball irony dovetails well with the feline's lasagna-loving egotism.

But Murray can tap dance in midair only so long without decent dialogue, and, sorry, "I think I'm going to blow Cat Chow chunks" isn't Charles M. Schulz, let alone Shakespeare. "Garfield: The Movie" doles out pop-culture references a la "Shrek," but James Brown imitations, Elvis poses, and "You had me at `hello' " aren't actual jokes, they're just a way to get laughs without doing any work. The story line? I liked it better when it was called "Toy Story 2." Garfield's naive doofus of an owner, Jon (Breckin Meyer), brings home a stray dog, mostly because he's tongue-tied with love for perky veterinarian Liz (Jennifer Love Hewitt). In a brave artistic departure from the comic strip, Odie is a live-action mutt, played sans voiceover by the certifiably real Tyler, who's half dachshund, half cairn terrier, and all ham.Through a series of twists, the jealous Garfield kicks Odie out of Jon's house, and the talented dog is scooped up by Happy Chapman (character actor Stephen Tobolowsky), a sadistic local TV newsman looking for an animal act. Here's where "Garfield" moves into seriously actionable territory: cat needs to rescue dog before bad guy gets on a train for New York, so he crosses a busy street under cover of a plastic mail bin, climbs through the ductwork of a midtown skyscraper, and pops out through a vent. Later, there's a climactic showdown in the luggage-sorting area of the train station. Sound familiar? Pixar's lawyers might think so. Ah, you say, but the little kids understand. Perhaps. I attended "Garfield: The Movie" in the company of a third-grade girls' soccer team, most of whom sat there with the engrossed, uninvolved faces kids get after the fourth straight hour of Nickelodeon. As the credits rolled, the girls all claimed to have had a good time, but it's my experience that you can take the true measure of a family film on the drive home. If it's a hit, they'll still be talking about it, enthusiastically comparing their favorite scenes and acting out the funny bits. On this drive, they talked about everything except "Garfield."

When I asked them what they thought of the movie, I got the blank stares that said it had already been forgotten. Note: "Garfield: The Movie" is preceded in theaters by "Gone Nutty," a silent, five-minute computer-animated short starring the acorn-obsessed "Ice Age" character named Scrat. It contains more real belly laughs than anything in the feature that follows.

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