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Ah, Garfield, bastion of feline laziness and gluttony. Forty years after his his first newspaper comic appearance, he’s living proof that a little cynicism is welcome now and then; that inside all of us, there’s a cat who hates Mondays, loves sleeping in and eating whatever he wants whenever he wants. Thanks to that relatability, Garfield’s popularity peaked to the point where he received no less than twelve television specials throughout the 80s and 90s. The two most popular based on my observations are the Halloween one, and today’s entry, A Garfield Christmas.

Funny enough, I was unaware of its existence until a certain critic of nostalgia included it in his follow-up list of favorite Christmas specials. It premiered a full year before Garfield and Friends, the series that introduced me to the cantankerous cat, yet it has a lot in common with it: the same voice actors, the animation studio, and much of the humor is directly adapted from Jim Davis’ comic strips. But does it hold up on rewatch or is it as flabby as our feline’s physique?

Garfield wakes on Christmas morning to find his owner, Jon Arbuckle, leaving a trail of lasagna to his surprise: a chair that makes any present he can think of appear. While Garfield fills the room with gifts, we get our first song by Desiree Goyette and Lou Rawls over the credits. Their voices have been staples of the classic Garfield specials since the beginning, and this one’s no exception. Rawl’s gravelly rhythm and blues is to them what Vince Guaraldi’s piano jazz is to the Peanuts specials, giving them a greater sense of musical identity than most holiday outings. Also, his songs slap. I can’t say I’m looking forward to the Chris Pratt Garfield movie, but if they somehow work in him dancing to Lou Rawls then it will be the greatest thing put to film.

Alas, Garfield’s ultra-matter-materializer is just a dream. Jon wakes him up to announce that they’re spending the holidays with his family on their farm. Garfield would rather have everyone come to him instead of being dragged out of his cozy bed every year and quietly rants in his head about it. There’s even a little lampshade hanging as he stops to question why his inner voice is whispering.

On the road, Jon sings an upbeat ditty reminiscing about Christmases past. Garfield provides a cynical counterpoint, pointing out the backbreaking labor and anxiety that goes into making those rose-tinted memories. This special may be marked as “for kids” on YouTube, but it’s definitely speaking to the adults watching it.

Once they arrive at the farm we meet Jon’s relatives: his doting homebody mother, stoic no-nonsense father, and scatterbrained brother “Doc Boy”. Garfield’s not one for schmaltzy family reunions but finds a kindred spirit in the heavyweight champion of this special, Grandma Arbuckle.

Spoiler alert: much of this review is gonna be me talking up Grandma because she is awesome. Grandma’s a stubborn, abrasive, tough-as-nails coot who always gets her way and knows how to liven things up. A great deal of her appeal also comes down to who voices her. For those of you who can’t quite place where you’ve heard her wry sarcasm and bombastic cackling before, here’s a hint:

Now THAT’S range!

After dinner the family gathers to decorate the Christmas tree. Jon recruits Garfield to stick the star on top. Despite his natural feline inclinations regarding festive foliage, it’s not an easy journey. Garfield mutters, “Whoever invented Christmas trees should be dragged out into the street and shot.”

Sorry Garfield, you’ll have to settle for him suffering a fatal stroke immediately following one of his anti-Semitic rants.

But Garfield succeeds in his mission and the result of his labors has the Arbuckles in awe.

Ma and Pa Arbuckle push Doc Boy into entertaining them on the piano, but after 25 years of piano lessons he can’t even plunk out a decent rendition of “O Christmas Tree”. So Grandma swoops in and if you ever wanted to hear Ursula doing a boogie-woogie cover of a Christmas carol, well, Merry Christmas!

Jon asks his mother to play them a song instead. It’s sappy and the singing sounds nothing like the voice actors, but the tune acts as the perfect lead-in to the highlight of the special.

This cartoon’s been nothing but lighthearted humor and fluff up to now, which makes this moment even more poignant. Garfield joins Grandma on her lap as she watches the snow fall in her solitary rocking chair and remembers her late husband:

Men like him didn’t feel like they could show much affection outwardly to the children, but on Christmas, it was okay. He always pretended not to be excited on Christmas morning, but his eyes gave it away. I think…I think it was his favorite day of the year…
Sometimes I wake up in the the night and I can still feel his strong arms around me. This is the night I miss him the most.

Everything about this from Pat Carroll’s gentle delivery to the cool, lonely shadows and moonlight juxtaposed against the warmth of the tree is perfect. Carroll’s passing earlier this year also adds another bittersweet layer to it. I never thought I’d get choked up watching Garfield, yet here we are.

Next comes Pa Arbuckle reading the family-favorite Christmas story “Binky the Clown Saves Christmas”. Though his annoyance and Jon and Doc Boy’s childish exuberance is played for laughs, it struck a bit of a chord. One of my personal favorite traditions in my household is my dad reading The Night Before Christmas or The Polar Express before bedtime on Christmas Eve. Even as we grew up my sister and I would really get into it, so this scene oddly encapsulates a part of my own Christmases.

Garfield catches Jon’s dog Odie sneaking out to the barn while everyone’s sleeping and follows him. Odie assembles an odd arrangement of household objects he scavenged throughout the cartoon to another catchy Lou Rawls tune. Garfield also stumbles upon a bundle of old mail and gets an idea…

Everyone’s in a whirl of excitement and gift-giving come Christmas morning. When things wind down, Garfield steps forward and presents Grandma with the notes he found in the barn – they’re the love letters her husband sent her before they married. She’s moved by the wonderful reminder of him, as is Garfield when Odie gives him his contraption, a back-scratching post. Garfield’s normally quick to taunt Odie, but on this occasion he can’t help but show the silly mutt a well-deserved bit of affection out of gratitude. He caps his gesture with a simple statement: “Christmas: it’s not the giving, it’s not the getting, it’s the loving. There, I said it. Now get outta here.”

Though a basic platitude to be sure, I like how understated it is in its presentation. This isn’t another special where a grump has to rediscover the meaning of Christmas (we’re covering that next week). Garfield already knows and agrees with the sentiment. It just takes a lot of effort to say it out loud, bless his slothful heart.

Then the Arbuckle family launches into the finale, a country song replete with yodeling. I’m not a country gal, but at least it’s short.

I envy the kids who got to grow up with A Garfield Christmas. They got to hold on to whatever nostalgia they had while discovering the humorous adult nuances as they matured. Even though I don’t have that nostalgia, I still really enjoy this special. It’s about as wholesome slice-of-life as a holiday special can get. In earnest, it’s a nice reprieve from the many stories where Christmas is put in jeopardy for one reason or another. Sometimes you just want to hunker down with a cup of hot cocoa and enjoy some close-to-home holiday antics.

They really captured what a down-to-earth family Christmas feels like, and that’s not coincidental. Jon Davis stated that he drew from his own Christmases on his family’s farm in Illinois, giving this special an authentic biographical touch. The one exception is Grandma. She and her subplot were added to provide some emotional heft, and it worked. Despite being made from whole cloth, she feels like a real family member. Her and Garfield’s witty remarks cut through the treacle, which leaves you utterly disarmed for the sudden display of sincerity leading into the third act. The back-to-back scenes of Grandma’s sassy tickling of the ivories and the reveal of her tender, sentimental side show why she’s the best character in this outing. She was even popular enough to warrant an appearance in the Garfield Thanksgiving special the following year. Pat Carroll, David Lander as Doc Boy and the rest of the cast bring their A-game, and Lorenzo Music was and always will be the voice of Garfield as far as I’m concerned.

Perhaps the thing that moves me so regarding this special is that while it doesn’t shy away from some of the irksome aspects in a realistic portrayal of a family gathering, it still shows how the spirit of the holidays can move people to become their best selves. We see it in absentminded Doc Boy saying an eloquent grace over dinner, Grandma’s solo scene, and Garfield giving Odie his due. It reminds us that the Christmas season can turn even the most mature adult into an excited child again, and for a moment, all is right with the world. Garfield’s right; it’s about the loving. Now get outta here and spread some love where it’s needed.

Thanks for reading! I hoped to have the Muppet Christmas Carol review out today for its anniversary, but since it wasn’t ready I had to switch it back to the usual holiday review order. With any luck it should be ready by next week on Dec. 18th. Hope to see you then!

Special thanks to my generous patrons Amelia Jones, Sam Flemming and Robert Barnette. Anyone who joins the Patreon party can get such fun perks as sneak peeks of reviews, extra votes, movie requests and more!