"Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties" is a genuinely clever kidpic that should delight moppets, please parents -- and maybe tickle a few tweens. The Fox release faces a real catfight at the box office, however. But, if the tepid first pic could gross nearly $200 million worldwide, this frisky follow-up could claw its way toward even more impressive grosses.

Good kitty! Superior in every way to its underwhelming predecessor, “Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties” is a genuinely clever kidpic that should delight moppets, please parents — and maybe tickle a few tweens. The Fox release faces a real catfight at the box office, however: In addition to “Cars” and “Over the Hedge,” the surprisingly child-friendly “Nacho Libre” also is competing for family auds. But, if the disappointingly tepid “Garfield: The Movie” (2004) could gross nearly $200 million worldwide, this frisky follow-up may could claw its way toward even more impressive grosses before it catapults to the top of homevid sales charts.

Much like the previous “Garfield” opus, new pic offers a seamless juxtaposition of a computer-generated title character with flesh-and-blood co-stars and digitally-tweaked quadrupeds. But the sequel doesn’t merely coast along on the novelty of having Garfield, the indolent orange tabby of comic-strip fame, interacting with real people (and mostly real animals).

It helps that Bill Murray, once more voicing the lasagna-loving feline, seems appreciably less arch and more engaged in his second go-round as Garfield. But it helps even more that scripters Joel Cohen and Alec Sokolow have devised a slightly more complex plot — the title might suggest Charles Dickens, but the real inspiration is Mark Twain’s “The Prince and the Pauper” — and much funnier funny business.

Garfield is a slackerish, wisecracking cat who easily manipulates Jon (Breckin Meyer), his affable but clueless owner. (Once again: We can hear Garfield talk — indeed, we can hear just about every animal in the pic talking to each other — but Jon and other on-screen humans can’t.)

When Jon attempts to propose to veterinarian g.f. Liz (perky but underutilized Jennifer Love Hewitt), Garfield deftly sabotages the poor guy’s plans for a romantic evening. But Jon isn’t easily thwarted: He impulsively flies to London while Liz attends a Royal Animal Conservatory conference there, to take a second shot at popping the question.

Of course, Garfield stows away in Jon’s suitcase, with Odie, Jon’s spirited but mute pet dog, also tagging along. Through a fortuitous twist of plot contrivances, Garfield winds up trading places with his exact look-alike: Prince (voiced by Tim Curry), a singularly spoiled tabby who has inherited a vast fortune and palatial estate.

While Prince slums with commoners Jon and Liz, Garfield enjoys a life of luxury under the dutiful care of Smithee (Ian Abercrombie), a faithful butler, and Winston (voiced — terrifically — by Bob Hoskins), an obsequious bulldog.

Trouble is, that luxurious life may be cut short: The snidely duplicitous Lord Dargis (Billy Connolly), next in line to inherit the estate, is plotting a catastrophic quietus for Prince/Garfield.

With Murray tossing about impudently rude remarks like so much confetti, and Connolly appearing to channel a “Fawlty Towers” era John Cleese in his verbal and physical tomfoolery, “A Tail of Two Kitties” remains sufficiently comical to captivate auds of all ages. (The funniest bit for movie buffs: An inspired allusion to the Groucho/Harpo mirror scene in “Duck Soup.”) Hoskins adds to the fun as a gruff-spoken straight man — or, more precisely, straight dog — and there are similarly deft vocal performances by such notables as Curry, Richard E. Grant, Rhys Ifans and (perfectly cast as an intimidating but dim-witted attack dog) Vinnie Jones.

Helmer Tim Hill (“Muppets From Space”) maintains a suitably zippy pace, even during stretches of exposition, and achieves an uproarious level of lunacy while Garfield, reveling in the good life, offers his own version of “Movin’ on Up” (aka TV’s “The Jeffersons” theme song).

Tech values are exceptional across the board. Best of all, Rhythm & Hues f/x wizards surpass their work on the previous pic with an even more animated Garfield.

Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties

Production

A 20th Century Fox release of a Davis Entertainment Group production. Produced by John Davis. Executive producers, Michele Imperato Stabile, Brian Manis. Directed by Tim Hill. Screenplay, Joel Cohen, Alec Sokolow, based on the comic strip created by Jim Davis.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Peter Lyons Collister; editor, Peter S. Elliott; music, Christophe Beck; music supervisor, Dave Jordan; production designer, Tony Burrough; art director, Louis M. Mann; set decorator, Anne D. McCulley; costume designer, Francine Jamison-Tanchuck; sound (Dolby DTS), David Macmillan; animation supervisor, Chris Bailey; Garfield animation, Rhythm & Hues Studios; assistant director, Michele Panelli-Venetis; casting, Matthew Jon Beck, Monica Swann. Reviewed at Edwards Marq*e Cinema, Houston, June 10, 2006. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 77 MIN.

Cast

Jon Arbuckle - Breckin Meyer Liz - Jennifer Love Hewitt Dargis - Billy Connolly Smithee - Ian Abercrombie Mr. Hobbs - Roger Rees Abby - Lucy Davis
Voices:
Garfield - Bill Murray Prince - Tim Curry Winston - Bob Hoskins Christophe - Sharon Osbourne Eenie - Jane Leeves Meenie - Jane Horrocks Preston - Richard E. Grant Rommel - Vinnie Jones McBunny - Rhys Ifans Narrator - Roscoe Lee Browne

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