This 2004 family comedy revolves around Garfield, a lazy, lasagna-loving cat who has the perfect life with his owner, Jon. Accustomed to luxury treatment, lavish meals and relying on his quick wit to get his way, the film opens on Garfield’s extravagant morning routine and his devious antics around the cul-de-sac. Unsurprisingly, Garfield is at first represented as a spoilt and witty feline who is loving but rather selfish. The film then introduces Odie, a dopey dachshund-terrier with a rather comedic talent for dancing, and Garfield’s immediate dislike for his new furry roommate. Overcome by jealousy, Garfield terrorizes Odie and coerces him into running away from home. Life is sweet for Garfield, but there’s just one problem – Odie has fallen into the dangerous hands of a fame-hungry TV presenter and is being trained with inhumane devices and exploited for human greed. Garfield’s discovery of this shocking reality marks the beginning of his moral transformation, he breaks his number one rule: ‘never leave the cul-de-sac’ and embarks on a journey to rescue Odie. The film follows Garfield’s moral metamorphosis into a kinder cat as he learns the most important lesson of (all nine!) of his lives – no animal gets left behind.
As a film with talking cats and dancing dogs, Garfield fits comfortably within the family comedy genre. Like other family films, there is a moral lesson embedded within the narrative that every animal matters and everyone can become a better individual. Using slapstick comedy and a furry narrator, the film constructs evolving representations of animals to show the metamorphosis and moral journey that Garfield experiences as he transforms from bad to good. The film cleverly incorporates tropes from the adventure genre to present Garfield’s growth, the most obvious being the ’bad to good’ trope which is conveyed throughout Garfield’s adventure to save Odie. As Garfield’s metamorphosis is central to the film’s ‘journey’ narrative, it cleverly encourages the audience to oversee Garfield’s evolution. Garfield is at first selfish and conniving, but during his journey to rescue Odie, he transforms into an empathetic and more selfless character. Not only does the film teach the young audience a moral lesson, but it ignites discussion about the important topics of animal exploitation and species interaction using a comedic and light-hearted style.
In many family-friendly films, animals are often represented as exclusively ‘bad’ or ‘good’, and these representations do not usually evolve. Rather interestingly and cleverly, the film presents evolving representations of Garfield to teach moral lessons about personal and moral growth. The representation of Garfield is dynamic – he is not exclusively bad, but he is not exclusively good either – instead, he evolves and learns from the lessons within his journey which ultimately makes him a better cat. Jonathan Burt suggests that ‘rather than seeing animals purely as semiotic devices it makes more sense to see them as dynamic and fluid agents that are integral to the passages of change’. This is fitting to the film as the evolving representations of Garfield not only exciting film material but is also true to reality – we are all constantly evolving. By using animals, the family audience are taught a lesson on life in a fun and aesthetically appealing way with a vibrant colour palette and talking animals being used to create a comedic film with a deep message hidden within.
Although the representation of Garfield changes throughout the film, before Odie’s appearance, Garfield is represented as spoilt and mischievous. The CGI style and enhancements of Garfield’s face establishes his anthropomorphic nature by making his emotions and expressions more melodramatic. This allows the audience to observe Garfield’s facial expressions and actions more clearly and makes it more humorous as we see his comedic reactions. Garfield’s vindictive ‘villain’ side is represented when he flushes the toilet to make Jon’s shower turn cold so that he will serve him breakfast quicker. As demonstrated in Figure 3, Garfield smirks proudly as he flushes the chain and his expression is emphasized by the CGI. Garfield’s manipulative tactics and vindictive smirk injects comedy into this scene which prompts the audience to laugh and find humour in his villainy. The comedic style and slapstick elements incorporated in the film are tropes that are conventional within the family comedy genre and represents Garfield as a spoilt yet clever feline. Garfield breaks the fourth wall, often making an expression into the camera before he does anything. Although overweight and lazy, the film represents Garfield’s ‘villain-like’ side which is constructed using conventions from a family friendly villain archetype, such as his exaggerated expressions, vindictive laugh and dialogue informing the viewer of his intentions before he does them.
The devious cat trope is a convention that is also used in other family-friendly films featuring animals such as Cats & Dogs (2001) as both Garfield and Mr. Tinkles are spoilt by their owners and represented as capable and devious and cats often play the villains. The representation of Garfield’s ‘villain’ antics shows that he is an emotional and impulsive cat; although devious at times, Garfield is not exclusively represented as a bad cat, just flawed. The film also includes representations of the ‘good’ elements of Garfield’s character to show the audience that he is neither good nor bad, which makes him relatable and interesting to observe.
Garfield’s ‘good’ side is also represented when he pretends to eat a mouse to please his beloved owner, but it is later revealed that he puts on a façade of mouse-catching house cat to please Jon. In reality, the audience discover that the mouse is actually a friend of Garfield’s. Within this sequence, Garfield proudly puts the mouse in his mouth to receive praise from Jon but when John leaves, spares the mouse’s life. (See video below). The representation of Garfield’s desire for praise is revelatory of his intention to be the perfect housecat when Jon is watching him because he does not want to let his owner down. Garfield’s loyalty and devotion to Jon is a ‘good’ trait, however, the film also incorporates his flaws to represent Garfield as a cat who is constantly learning and evolving. This ultimately makes his transformation and growth more prominent which is essential to the narrative.
Following Odie’s arrival, the film represents Garfield’s good and bad traits simultaneously in one scene to show that his agency over his decisions can have negative or positive consequences, depending on his choices. This is demonstrated through his interactions with Odie, as although Garfield is hostile towards him, we are aware that he is capable of being kind to other species as he was with the mouse. However, it is implied that it is Garfield’s selfishness and love for Jon that prompts him to terrorize Odie, as he does not want Jon’s attention to be taken away. Adam Holz comments that ‘from the moment Odie arrives, he’s the object of Garfield’s cartoonish abuse’. Rather ironically, the film represents Garfield’s animalistic and cartoon-like treatment of Odie in the first half of the film – at many points, it is as if Garfield forgets he is an animal himself! This is demonstrated in Figure 7 when Odie is sitting with him on the sofa, who comedically looks into the camera before shoving an unsuspecting Odie onto the floor. This portrayal is reflective of the predator and prey trope which is saturated in the comedic and slapstick elements to make the audience laugh. However, the deeper meaning shows that Garfield’s treatment of animals varies depending on if he feels threatened by them and Garfield ‘resents the intrusion of the dim-witted but kind-hearted canine, and the two develop a classic case of sibling rivalry that brings out the worst in the fat cat’. Despite his mistreatment of Odie, in the same sequence we see Garfield teach Odie to dance to the pop song that he is listening to, showing Garfield’s softer side and a bonding between the species which leaves the audience wondering – does Garfield care about Odie more than he lets on?
By portraying a dynamic and evolving representation of Garfield, he is presented with both anthropomorphic and animalistic behaviours. Throughout the film, Garfield looks very different to the other animals he interacts with – including Odie. Unlike Garfield, Odie is represented as docile and submissive and cannot talk or gesture as Garfield can. The representations of Odie and Garfield contrast against one another which accentuates Garfield’s anthropomorphic traits because Odie’s ‘otherness’ as an animal makes Garfield appear more human-like because Odie does not evolve, instead he remains in a stagnant representation of ‘dopey dog’. This visually shows Garfield’s dominance and dynamic influence over Odie, and he treats Odie like his own play toy which establishes an inequality of power between the two. Garfield’s decision to make the long journey to the TV studios to save Odie marks another important stage in his evolution as he is beginning to see the damage that he has caused to both Odie and Jon and wants to make it right.
Throughout the film, mise-en-scene of buildings and enclosed spaces is used to reflect the confinement of animals. Garfield, being an animal with agency chooses to be confined in the cul-de-sac because that is where he is happiest, whereas Odie has no say in where he is confined, representing his docile nature and forced confinement. In a twist of irony, Garfield observes the shocking consequences of his actions when he finds Odie locked up in a cage. The close-up camerawork emphasizes Garfield’s realisation that his actions have truly put Odie in danger. Garfield’s moral metamorphosis and desire to correct his actions and rescue Odie is represented through his actions as he tries to unlock the cage and comfort Odie, which contrasts against his earlier action when he pushed Odie away. As demonstrated in Figure 7, Odie and Garfield are separated by the cage showing the sad reality of Odie’s recurring mistreatment which Garfield had a hand (or paw) in creating. Garfield vocalizes his thoughts to the viewer exclaiming: “A shock collar – that’s inhumane”. The representation of animal confinement and exploitation with devices that force animals to behave or act in a certain way is directly criticized in this scene.
Throughout the film, there is a multitude of close-up and location shots to encourage the viewer to follow along with Garfield’s journey. The upbeat soundtrack and funny comments emphasise the adventurous element within this film and with Garfield being a free agent, his freedom is used as a trope to show that not every animal has this privilege. Garfield taking on a ‘heroic’ role is significant in showing that he has learnt from his mistakes. The final stage of Garfield’s evolution is represented in a dramatic scene when Garfield wildly jumps onto Chapman to free Odie from his invisible chains. The action where he lunges at Chapman and claws at him to save Odie is animalistic and instinctive behaviour showing an impulsive cat protecting another animal which dramatises the tropes of animality and marking of territory. Garfield has fulfilled his fate and has become the hero that Odie needed to free him from confinement and exploitation.
Underneath the blanket of comedy, the film offers a realistic perspective on animals, depicting them as individuals with agency who can make their own decisions and evolve through time. Garfield’s moral journey into a kinder and more empathetic cat is a valuable lesson to humans – everyone is capable of growth and evolution is a natural part of life. Garfield also sheds light on the controversial topics of animal abuse and exploitation, raising awareness on an important topic. Garfield becoming the hero and fixing his errors by welcoming Odie into his heart is the perfect message for a young audience to always keep trying to be better.
Ultimately, like other films with animal protagonists such as Scooby Doo: The Movie (2002) and Brother Bear (2003) there is a happy ending. This is not surprising considering this film is suitable for all ages and offers a moral lesson on friendship and morality. Garfield is a hilariously candid character – he’s not good, he’s not bad, but he’s a better and more caring cat by the end of the film – showing us all through humour and determination that anyone can be a hero and learn from the past.
Burt, Jonathan, Animals in Film (London: Reakiton, 2002)
Brother Bear (dir. Aaron Blaise, Robert Walker, Walt Disney Pictures, 2003)
Cats & Dogs (dir. Lawrence Guterman, Warner Bros Studios, 2001)
Garfield: The Movie (dir. Peter Hewitt, 20th Century Fox, 2004)
Holz, Adam, ‘Review: Garfield: The Movie’ <https://www.pluggedin.com/movie-reviews/garfieldthemovie/ > [accessed 11/01/2023]
Scooby-Doo: The Movie (dir. Raja Gosnell, Warner Bros. Pictures, 2002)
Arnold Arluke, Just a Dog: Understanding Animal Cruelty and Ourselves (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006)
Claire Malloy, Popular Media and Animals (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011)
Garfield 2: A Tail of Two Kitties (dir. Tim Hill, 20th Century Fox, 2006)
Susan King, ‘The Week Ahead; Fancy That: Cats Land Starring Roles’, The Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California: Los Angeles Times Communications LLC, 2004)
J. Maher, The Palgrave international handbook of animal abuse studies (Palgrave Macmillan: 2017)
 Jonathan Burt, Animals in Film (London: Reakiton, 2002) p.83
 Cats & Dogs (dir. Lawrence Guterman, Warner Bro, 2001)
 Adam Holz, Holz, Adam, ‘Review: Garfield: The Movie’ <https://www.pluggedin.com/movie-reviews/garfieldthemovie/ > [accessed 11/01/2023]
6 Brother Bear (dir. Aaron Blaise, Robert Walker, Walt Disney Pictures, 2003)
 Scooby-Doo: The Movie (dir. Raja Gosnell, Warner Bros. Pictures, 2002)