Writer: Jim Davis
Cast: Lorenzo Music, Thom Huge, Gregg Berger, Pat Carroll, Pat Harrington Jr., David Lander, Julie Payne
Plot: Garfield the Cat (Lorenzo Music) wakes up on Christmas morning to find his owner Jon (Thom Huge) has arranged an incredible gift – a chair that will read his mind and produce any gift he can imagine. Garfield produces dozens of presents before he realizes it’s all a dream. Jon wakes him up in the real world, on Christmas Eve, planning to pack up and go to his parents’ farm for Christmas. On the farm Jon, Garfield and Odie (Gregg Berger) get caught up in the preparations, while his mom (Julie Payne) and Grandma (Pat Carroll) clash in the kitchen. After dinner, Jon’s father (Pat Harrington Jr.) can’t get the star on top of the tree, and Garfield is sent in to do the job. After a few heart-rending moments, he pops out of the branches, places the star, and falls back down, taking the half of the decorations with him. Despite the chaos, when Dad plugs the tree in, it’s perfect. Jon’s parents have his brother Doc Boy (David Lander) sit down at the piano to lead a singalong, but Grandma quickly takes over. After, as she relaxes with Garfield in her lap, she relates how her late husband always made Christmas magical for her and the kids.
After Dad’s rousing recitation of Binky: The Clown Who Saved Christmas, the family goes to bed. Garfield watches Odie sneak off to the barn, where the dog struggles to put together some bizarre contraption. Garfield helps without Odie’s knowledge, then stumbles onto a bundle of old letters. Inside, Jon and Doc Boy try to rouse their parents to open presents – at 1:30 a.m. Dad forces them to go back to bed until morning – real morning – when Garfield presents Grandma with the letters he found. She’s stunned to realize Garfield found the love letters her husband sent her years ago, letters she thought were lost forever. Odie then pops in with his own gift – the contraption from the barn, a backscratcher for Garfield. Touched, Garfield comments on the true meaning of Christmas… love… before he tells us all to get out.
Thoughts: It’s easy to forget, considering how bland it’s grown in recent years, but Garfield actually used to be pretty funny. Both the comic strip and the 80s/90s cartoon had some really good years, and this 1987 special is one of the earlier efforts with the newspaper star.
Garfield’s cynicism is a trademark of the character, of course, but for a children’s Christmas special in 1987 to open up with a main character proclaiming the virtues of greed and avarice was a rather surprising way to kick things off. His complete lack of excitement and enthusiasm is what makes the character so funny, in fact. While Jon bubbles over with excitement about Christmas, Garfield bemoans days of work, chores, “electrical contracting,” and other such activities that draw him away from his cozy bed. Looking back as an adult, it’s a lot easier to sympathize with Garfield than Jon’s family. Even if you forget everything else that goes along with Christmas, life on a farm… it’s not easy.
Grandma Arbuckle (who made a return appearance, triumphantly, in Garfield’s Thanksgiving special a few years later) is another comedic gem, throwing out such bizarre observations as “in my day all we had were wood-burning cats.” That sort of weird, surreal comment is just the thing to elevate this beyond being just a wacky kids’ show and into something with a little bit of an absurdist quality that adults can enjoy too. As the show progresses, though, we start to get the sense that her lunacy is a bit of a front, a shield she puts up to hide a bit of loneliness that’s come upon her in her age.
Lorenzo Music was truly fantastic in the Garfield role, bringing in a amusing, dry quality that sells every line. Even Frank Welker, who does the character in the modern version of the cartoon, doesn’t really hold a candle to Music, who passed away in 2001. Pat Carroll’s Grandma is another great find, straddling the line between sweet little old lady and aging hellfire. Fans who like to play “who’s that voice?” get a nice puzzle as well – Jon’s brother Doc Boy is voiced by David Lander, alias Squiggy of Laverne and Shirley fame.
The story of this special is pretty loose. Although I don’t think most of it is based on any specific comic strips, it definitely has the feel of being plucked from assorted holiday-themed strips that don’t necessarily have anything to do with one another, then stitched together into something resembling a plot. The later Peanuts specials have often been fraught with this problem, but this is one of the few times Garfield fell victim to it.
With the loose feeling, the special doesn’t really latch on to the real Christmas spirit until the end. Suitably, the cartoon maintains Garfield’s rather pessimistic air until the moment Garfield realizes Odie is trying to make him a gift. After that, it quickly swings into the realm of the sweet – Garfield helps Odie and improbably finds the one thing that would mean more to Grandma than anything else. It’s quite a coincidence, but it’s not hard to accept in a cartoon of this sort.
This is one of my favorite of the various Garfield specials, and it set things up very nicely for his weekly cartoon series the next year. That one became a staple for me for many years, and even now, I’d rather watch some of those old episodes than most other cartoons on the air today. The modern Garfield Show doesn’t really hold a candle to the old one (despite having much of the same cast and writing staff), but I still like to go to this one every Christmas season.
Don’t forget, The Christmas Special is the third Reel to Reel movie study. The first, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!