Review: Stuffed with in-jokes for parents, 'The Garfield Movie' isn't a cat-astrophe

Since 1978, cartoonist Jim Davis has explored the quotidian dramas of pet ownership via the daily travails of beleaguered Jon Arbuckle, his eager dog, Odie, and the titular tubby orange tabby, Garfield. If the comic strip (the most widely syndicated in the world) is the weekly sitcom version of their story, then “The Garfield Movie,” the latest effort to bring Garfield to the big screen, is the oversized action-adventure film, replete with references and comparisons to Tom Cruise.

Those Cruise-inspired Easter eggs are laid not necessarily for kids but for the adults who have accompanied them to the theater, such as when the score references “Mission: Impossible” while an ox named Otto, voiced by Ving Rhames (who plays Cruise’s techie Luther in the action franchise), lays out the plan for a heist. Later, a triumphant climax featuring airborne food-delivery drones offers the chance for a bit of the “Top Gun” theme while Garfield (voiced by Chris Pratt) brags that he does his own stunts, “just like Tom Cruise.”

The line is a bit of over-emphasis that this is the big, thrilling version of Garfield, not a “Jeanne Dielman”-style study of domestic life. In fact, after a quick framing device that shows us Garfield’s heartstring-tugging history as a starving stray kitten who encounters Jon at an Italian restaurant, the film speeds through a quick montage of our favorite Garfield tropes: He loves lasagna, hates Mondays, torments Jon and manipulates Odie.

We know him, we love him: Garfield’s unique characteristics have been printed on coffee mugs for years. Now, on to the high-stakes and highly contrived plot. Garfield and Odie are kidnapped by a couple of thuggish pups, Nolan (Bowen Yang) and Roland (Brett Goldstein), who are working for a Persian cat named Jinx (Hannah Waddingham). She wants them to collaborate with Garfield’s deadbeat dad, Vic (Samuel L. Jackson), on a milk heist as revenge for the time she did in the pound after a scheme she and Vic pulled.

The heist plot allows for the action, adventure and suspense to come into play, as well as the aforementioned Tom Cruise references, along with nods to film noir and early silent films (there are a lot of sequences set on trains). There’s even a “Rashomon”-like flashback as we see Garfield’s childhood abandonment from Vic’s perspective, changing the way we understand how Garfield found himself alone in that alley that night. The heist may make up the majority of the story, but it’s merely a means by which an estranged father and son can escape the emotional prison of masculinity and express their feelings to each other.

“The Garfield Movie,” directed by Mark Dindal and written by Paul A. Kaplan, Mark Torgove and David Reynolds, may sport a deep knowledge of film history to delight cinephile parents, but it is still a kiddie movie and comes with the same zany, harried energy one might expect from such a project. The aesthetic hews closer to the look of the comic strip than the CGI/live-action abomination of the two Garfield movies of the early aughts, which is on trend with other animated films that embrace an illustrated style, though this is less edgy than some recent examples (the “Spider-verse” movies, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem”).

Bill Murray voiced the rusty, rotund feline in “Garfield: The Movie” (2004) and “Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties” (2006) in his dry, laconic manner, and Pratt does a fine job taking over vocal duties. Harvey Guillén offers his voice for Odie’s noises and the rest of the voice cast (Nicholas Hoult as Jon, Cecily Strong as a Midwestern security guard named Marge) round out their world.

Though the film is formulaic and somewhat annoyingly energetic, it’s cute and irreverent enough, and manages to bridge the generation gap, offering up a kid-friendly flick that can keep adults somewhat entertained for the duration, proving that even after all these years, Garfield’s still got it.

Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.

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