Garfield's dreaming of a perfect Christmas where Jon, after feeding a bunch of lasagna, introduces him to a gift-giving machine that produces anything the user thinks of. But, just as Garfield is filling the room with stuff, reality comes thudding down on him when Jon wakes him up on Christmas Eve morning, telling him that they, along with Odie, are going to spend Christmas with his family on their farm. Garfield is not at all thrilled to hear this, grumbling that it's the same thing every year and that Jon's family never visits them there, where his bed is. In fact, he's not big on the whole notion of Christmas in general, viewing all of Jon's memories of it through a cynical lens. Arriving at the farm, the three of them meet up with Jon's mom and dad, his brother, Doc Boy, and his grandmother, who's a very energetic, wise-cracking old lady whom Garfield immediately bonds with. The afternoon and evening march on, as the family goes through the traditions of having Christmas dinner, decorating the tree, and dad having to endure reading the story, Binky: The Clown Who Saved Christmas, which he also does every year. All the while, Odie is clearly up to something secretive, gathering various materials and taking them out to the barn, while Garfield, after spending more time with Grandma, comes across something long forgotten that might just brighten up her Christmas and bring him closer to learning what the holiday is truly all about.
He later spends some more time with Grandma, listening to her talk about her late husband, whom she especially misses around Christmas and who she knows loved the holiday. Following that, and enduring Dad's reading of Binky: The Clown Who Saved Christmas, Garfield wakes up in the middle of the night to find that Odie's gone. Seeing him sneaking around outside, into the barn, Garfield follows him out there and sees him making something with various items. While he's out there, Garfield also finds a bundle of letters that he realizes are at least fifty years old and, realizing what they are (love letters from Grandpa during their courting days), gives them to Grandma the next day as a present. Grandma is quite pleased and touched by this and, after being thanked by him, Garfield, in turn, receives a present himself from Odie: a homemade back scratcher. Despite all his cynicism and many greedy moments, Garfield shows his soft side when he sincerely thanks Odie for his gift and he admits what he knows as the true meaning of Christmas: "It's not the giving, it's not the getting, it's the loving."
In stark contrast to most stories like this, we're the extended family is often portrayed as fairly zany, Jon's family is actually pretty normal and subdued in their personalities. His dad (voiced by Pat Harrington) is quite a straight-laced family man, likable but also annoyed by his wife's insistence on certain traditions, like putting the star on the Christmas tree last and having to read the same story year after year, as well as by his grown-up sons acting like kids, waking him up at 1:30 in the morning to see if they can open their presents yet. I really like Jon's mom (voiced by Julie Payne), as she comes off as a very warm and loving lady, one who's really happy that her family is together for Christmas. She sometimes gets to the point where her happiness over it is a bit too sappy for some of them to take, particularly Grandma (who literally tells her to put a sock in it early on), and her insistence on certain things, like what she puts her husband through and when she forces Doc Boy to say grace at the dinner table and sing a Christmas carol, is a little much, but her voice is just so sweet and the way she clearly loves her family, particularly in how much food she cooked, makes her impossible not to like, for me. And then, there's Doc Boy (voiced by David L. Lander), the much put upon younger brother of Jon's who doesn't like being called "Doc Boy" by his brother and is not at all thrilled about having to say grace and sing "O Christmas Tree" at the piano. However, while he drops the ball on the latter, prompting Grandma to take over and belt out a really jazzy rendition of the song, he actually gets into saying grace, to the point where he goes on longer than he should, leading Grandma to whack him on the head to get him to shut up. Like his brother, he becomes a big kid at the idea of Christmas, wanting to hear his dad once again read the story of Binky: The Clown Who Saved Christmas and unable to wait until the next morning to open up presents. By the way, Doc Boy's choice of pajamas is interesting in that it's a rabbit-themed, one-piece thing, complete with a cotton tail in the appropriate place.
Despite her energy and zaniness, there is a solemn, sad side to Grandma, as viewed in the scene where, as the others continue singing carols, Garfield sits in her lap as she rocks by the window, telling him about her late husband. It's a very heartfelt and genuinely touching moment, as Grandma, while stroking Garfield's back and looking out the window, at the snow falling, tells him, "Grandpa was a proud man. A strong man. He was a good provider. We never had much money, but we always had plenty of food on the table, and he always made something special for me and each of the children at Christmas. 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 him away. I think... I think it was his favorite day of the year. Sometimes I wake up in the night, and I can still feel his strong arms around me. This is the night I miss him the most." One critic, Jef Rouner of the Houston Press, has actually called this moment sad and depressing, citing how, because Grandma can't hear Garfield's thoughts, she's lamenting her loss and sorrow to a cat who's just visiting her for the night. While I agree that it is sad, I don't find it depressing or downbeat since, for one, Garfield's only thought during this whole scene is about how envies the cats whose backs Grandma has stroked in the times she's spent alone since her husband died; for another, in an earlier scene, she admits that it's ridiculous she's talking to a cat; and finally, as solemn as it is, it has a ring of truth to it in that there will always be loved ones who are no longer with us whom you'll miss around Christmas. And it's not like there's no payoff to it, as it prompts Garfield to give Grandma her and Grandpa's old love letters as a present when he stumbles across them in the barn, a present she's absolutely elated to have and which clearly brightens her Christmas up as a result. Maybe I'm too milk and cookies but I feel that Rouner didn't quite get the real significance of that scene between Grandma and Garfield.
This is quite possibly the most visually appealing and memorable of the Garfield specials, right from the first frames. As it's revealed that this opening scene is a dream that Garfield is having, everything looks much brighter and more stylized than it usually does, with the outside of the house covered in so many decorations and lights that it virtually has an aura about it, and that's to say nothing of the interior, where the walls are shown to be completely white and everything, including the Christmas tree and the presents around it, is drawn in a scribbling, basic, and somewhat abstract manner. Even the fireplace that you see burning behind Garfield when you first see him, sleeping in his bed, is animated in an odd, jerky way. Once Garfield wakes up, everything looks the way it normally does, but that doesn't end the special's visually appealing nature. The backgrounds and the environments, both inside and outside the Arbuckle farm, are as simple and sparse as you'd expect in a Garfield cartoon, but there are some moments where they look really lovely in how they're shaded and lit. During a section where the family is singing a carol, while Garfield spends some time with Grandma, there are some pretty exterior shots of the farmhouse, as it's lit by the moon and you see the snow slowly come down, and the spot where Grandma is rocking by the window is lit very low, with the only light source being the moonlight outside. It adds very much to the solemn, bittersweet feeling of that scene and Grandma's memories of her late husband at Christmas, with the scene ending with a pull back to show the side of the Christmas tree as she laments that she misses Grandpa the most on Christmas Eve, followed by one last shot of the house's exterior. Speaking of the tree, once it's been decorated and Dad plugs it in, it looks quite good in all the shots of it, as does the shot of the sun coming over the horizon behind the house the next morning. Finally, as sparse and simple as the overall art style is, there are instances where that does manage to have a beauty to it, such as the snow-covered front lawn around the farm's barn and the big, wide shot of Garfield and Odie sleeping in front of the fireplace, which is compromised of nothing but those three elements.
Like any good holiday special, this manages to capture the feel of it really well, not just in the visuals but also in how it conveys all of the relatable memories associated with it. The eagerness of getting presents is very prevalent, with it being the only thing about Christmas that Garfield initially cares about, as well as Jon's memories of him and Doc Boy hardly being able to sleep because they were so excited about what they were getting, something that clearly hasn't diminished, even though they're now grown men. Garfield also chimes in on this part of it during Jon's song, describing Christmas' "special gifts" as being the insomnia and anxiety that kids are put through while having to wait to open their presents. Thankfully, that's about as cynical as it gets, although when it goes into other memories and family traditions, like decorating the tree and having Christmas dinner, it does also bring up the aggravation that could with them, like being forced to say grace, nearly killing yourself in trying to put the final decoration atop the tree, and having to do the same thing year after year, such as reading a dumb story (or, in my case, when I was growing up, watching the same collection of Christmas cartoons just about every year). Finally, I like the way in which the special gets across the ever tricky true meaning of Christmas, which can come off as overly saccharine and trite if you don't handle it the right way. In this case, you have Garfield starting off as his usual cynical self but, as he bonds with Grandma, his soft side begins to show through, to the point where he gives her a very special gift when he stumbles across her and Grandpa's old love letters, knowing how much they would mean to her. And he, in turn, is absolutely touched by the effort Odie puts in to make him a homemade back scratcher, prompting him to genuinely hug him and then sum things up to the others by saying, "Christmas: it's not the giving, it's not the getting, it's the loving. There, I said it. Now get outta here." Since they can't hear his thoughts, I don't know if his speech held any meaning for them, but the audience being able to hear it and see the change in him is what really matters.
Like I said, the minute the special begins, you should know that something's up, as the outside of the house is covered in elaborate decorations, from different kinds of bright, neon lights, including several that spell out "NOEL" on the side of the roof, and an automatic sleigh of presents being pulled around in midair by a couple of reindeer. And if that wasn't enough, when we cut inside to see Garfield asleep in his bed, not only is everything around him more oddly stylized but Jon comes in, dressed as an elf, and enthusiastically wakes Garfield up to tell him that it's Christmas morning. Excited at the prospect of presents, Garfield is told by Jon that he can't open them on an empty stomach and watches as lays down a line of "breakfast lasagnas" to the tree, which he, of course, immediately gulps down as he follows them. Jon then goes to get Garfield's gift, which is so big that he has to drive it into the living room with a forklift, and it opens up to reveal a large, electric chair-like seat that has a mechanical Santa Claus sitting in it. Jon sits down in the chair, describing it as "the gift that keeps on giving," and demonstrates its mind-reading and gift-producing abilities by having it produce a new hat for him. Excited at the prospect, Garfield quickly pushes Jon out of the seat and uses the machine himself, producing a handful of jewels, which he says is, "Just for starters," adding, "Now, this is what Christmas is all about." That leads into the opening title sequence and the first song, Gimme, Gimme, Gimme, Gimme, performed by Lou Rawls, along with a female chorus. (Incidentally, I must admit that when I reviewed Garfield's Halloween Adventure just a little while before this, I talked about how it didn't make sense for Rawls to sometimes sing Garfield's vocals, while Lorenzo Music himself was perfectly capable at doing it all himself. Not being that familiar with the specials at the time, I've sensed learned upon watching most of them since then that Rawls did that in all of them.) As you can guess, the song is all about getting as much stuff as possible, as Garfield has the machine produce every type of gift possible, from television sets, guitars, golf clubs, various types of food, and much, much more, including a number of wrapped gifts. By the time he's finished, the room is filled to bursting with stuff, and Garfield jumps into the pile and tosses various gifts up in the air, cheering, "Things! Stuff! Gadgets, toys, greed, avarice! I love it!" And that's when Jon wakes Garfield up for real to tell him that they're going to spend Christmas with his family on the farm. (All those times I read the comic adaptation, it never quite clicked that this first part was a dream, as the transition to Garfield actually being woken up was more abrupt. I suspected, but was never sure of it until I finally saw the special.)
In the introduction I mentioned that, when A Garfield Christmas Special was reran in 1991, it featured some alterations from the original 1987 version. Some of them are significant but others, like this first instance, are more minute. When Jon, Garfield, and Odie first leave for the Arbuckle farm, originally the sequence was a bit longer, showing them pull out of the driveway and head through the streets, whereas in the 1991 version, when it comes back from commercial, it cuts to them already out past the city limits. In any case, as they drive down the road, Jon talks about how Christmas is his favorite holiday and starts to reminisce about what it was like when he was a kid, much to Garfield's annoyance. This leads into the song, Can't Wait Till Christmas, when Jon sings about those memories and we get quick cuts to flashbacks of them, like Jon's dad chopping down a tree, his mom cooking dinner, baby Doc Boy wanting their mom's attention, the two boys decorating the tree, putting on the lights, and wrapping presents; all the while, Garfield responds to each memory with cynicism, calling the moment with baby Doc Boy as "fighting," adding, "Big, fat, hairy deal," and wrapping the presents and sending out cards, "Office work." Jon then sings about how, after the presents were under the tree, he and Doc Boy could barely sleep, wondering what they might be. Garfield then leads the next part of the song, accompanied by a female chorus, with Jon responding to each of his lyrics with a more upbeat spin to them: "The special gifts of Christmas," "Christmas," "That really make it great," "It's so great," "Are the insomnia and the anxiety... kids get from having to wait." (I love that part, because of how true it is. I know I was that way while trying to sleep on Christmas Eve.) Jon then finishes up the song, singing about how he can't wait till Christmas, with Odie barking along, when Garfield ends it on this note: "Wake me when it's through."
After they arrive at the farm and meet up with everyone, there's a moment where Jon, Garfield, and Odie walk outside into the snow, with Jon commenting on, among other things, how beautiful the scenery is. Garfield, however, can't enjoy the scenery, as the only thing that's sticking out of the thick snow as he walks through it is his tail, saying that he's sure things can't get any worse, after which he runs right into a water pump, adding, "I gotta quit saying that." Meanwhile, in the kitchen, Grandma, after tasting the sausage gravy Mom is cooking, goes to put some chili powder in it. Mom catches her and asks her if that's what she's up to, which Grandma denies completely. However, once she's out of earshot, Grandma murmurs to herself, "Just because my chili gravy won a blue ribbon at the county fair and your gravy didn't even place, who am I to tell you how to make gravy? The Greene County Gravy champion, that's who," and proceeds to add the powder to the gravy. Jon and Garfield then come back into the house, with Jon asking him where Odie is and Garfield answering, "In the barn. Let's eat." Out in the barn, Odie sniffs around a pile of junk, taking a piece of wood out of it, along with a hand-rake, wagging his tail and snickering upon getting them together. Back in the kitchen, Garfield can't resist sneaking a taste of the sausage gravy. After he tastes it, however, his face instantly turns red, steam spews out of his ears, and he blows fire out of his mouth. But, once he gets over it, he declares it to be perfect, as steam edges out from his lips.
Everyone then sets down at the table for Christmas dinner, as Odie slips back into the house, whistling innocently. Doc Boy reaches for a biscuit, only for Mom to swipe his hand and ask him to say grace, much to his chagrin. Following a bonk on the head from Grandma, he begins the prayer, which starts out well enough, as he prays about how grateful they are for the food and to be together on Christmas Eve, but then, he goes overboard, melodramatically intoning, "And as surely, as the waters of the streams and the rivers find the sea, let each of us find happiness and wisdom in this, our..." Grandma, however, finally gets fed up with him going on and on and whacks him with the ladle again, prompting him to quickly end, "Thanks, lord. Let's eat." They start eating, with Jon asking Mom to pass the potatoes and she, revealing how much she's cooked, asks him, "Scalloped, whipped, fried, baked, or boiled?" Jon, unable to decide, then asks for a piece of pie instead and Mom, in turn, asks, "Apple, peach, pumpkin, blueberry, cherry, or banana cream?" Grandma, meanwhile, is slipping Garfield and Odie some food under the table when no one's looking (in the original version, you see her give them some potatoes before slipping them some ham), prompting Garfield to remark on the "service" and "cuisine," but, due to the lacking decor, "I give this place two stars." That's when Dad remarks on how Grandma's really putting the food away and she says she's eating for two, much to his surprise (his reaction is lengthened a bit in the '91 version). After complimenting Mom, as well as Grandma, on her cooking, Jon offers Garfield some leftovers but, to his shock, he passes on them, as he's stuffed from Grandma feeding him and says, "I have opted to watch my waistline this holiday season."
Next, Mom announces that it's time to trim the tree, while Odie rummages around in the box of ornaments and lights, pulling free a small wire that he sneaks off with, laughing sneakily. Jon, Doc Boy, and their parents surround the tree and start putting the lights and ornaments on, while Grandma rocks in her chair nearby, with Garfield in her lap, and comments on how crazy they're acting before adding you have to be a little crazy to make it through life. Dad is then shown standing on Doc Boy's back, trying to reach the top of the tree to put the star on it, as Jon tries to keep him from falling. He then complains about how they wait to put the star on last, asking why they can't just put the star on first and then put the tree up; Mom then chimes in, saying it wouldn't be Christmas is they put the star on first (in the comic, Dad says something to the effect of, "One more remark like that and you'll be seeing stars, woman,"). That's when Jon enlists Garfield to put the star on the tree, telling him that he'll be a hero if he succeeds, which Garfield likes the sound of. He's more than eager to do it, saying, "If I'm not back in an hour, send a banana cream pie after me," and fairly easily climbs up to the top of the tree, commenting on how easy it is. When he pops out of the top, though, he makes the mistake of looking down and seeing how high up he is. He panics momentarily but manages to grab onto the top of the tree and plant the star on it, prompting everyone to cheer him. Standing on the tree, he takes a bow, only to fall right through the center of it and plop onto the floor below, ornaments, lights, and tinsel falling down on top of him. He growls that the person who invented Christmas trees should be drug out into the street and shot, another ornament falling and bopping him on the head. Despite that little setback, in the next scene, Dad plugs the tree in and it gives off a lovely glow that has everyone oohing, with Garfield adding, "Nice touch."
What follows is a moment that was added specifically for the '91 version (which tells me when that comic adaptation I read was written, as it was included in there as well). Mom announces that Doc Boy is going to play the piano and sing a Christmas song for them, something that he, like saying grace, isn't too enthusiastic about doing. Dad, however, makes him play, saying, "Those 24 years of piano lessons better be worth something!" Sitting down, Doc Boy begins to play and sing a very atonal, off-key rendition of O Christmas Tree, when Grandma suddenly comes in, knocking him off the bench, and says, "Let old Grandma take a whack at that!" She proceeds to play a very jazzy, energetic rendition of the first few verses of the song that literally has the piano rocking and finishes up with a flourish. Sitting down on the keys, she asks Mom, who's completely stunned by that performance, as is everyone else, what she thought of it and, once she gets over the shock of it, says, "That was interesting." Grandma then tells them not to touch the ivories until they've cooled down and walks away while scatting, leaving everyone still at a loss for words. This bit's addition is the reason why other aspects of the special were shortened.
With that bit of craziness finished, Jon asks his mom to play for them and she sits down at the piano and begins the song, Christmas in Your Heart, which is the loveliest of the songs in the special. It's a slow, sweet tune, sung by an ensemble but with the main vocals courtesy of Desiree Goyette, and it's first lines are set to a montage of the snow falling outside the farmhouse, the Christmas tree glowing, and Grandma sitting by herself by the window. Seeing her, Garfield heads over to join her and she strokes his back, sharing her memories of Grandpa with him. The dialogue remains the same but scene itself is conceived in a very different manner between the two versions of the special, with the original having different camera angles and blocking, brighter lighting, different character models, slightly stiffer animation, and it lacks the shot of the photo of Grandma and Grandpa together. While the scene is as affecting in both, I think it works just a tad bit more in the '91 version, with how I described it earlier and that shot of the photo adding to the emotion, and I also feel that Garfield's reactions to her lamenting feel more empathetic as well. (All of the images of this scene that you see in this review are from the '91 version but both the '87 version and a comparison video between the two are up on YouTube, in case you want to check out the differences for yourself.) Regardless, both versions have the song end with one last exterior shot of the farmhouse before fading to black.
Following that, Dad has to endure reading Binky: The Clown Who Saved Christmas for the billionth year in a row, and is further annoyed when Jon and Doc Boy force him to read it with more emotion and say Binky's catchphrase, "Hey, kids!", the way he says it. He gets an approving lick from Odie for complying and, after the story is finished, Mom tells everyone that it's time for bed. While everyone heads upstairs, Odie, making sure nobody's watching, sneaks into a closet, grabs a plunger, spins the suction cup off, and walks off with it. In the original version, there's a slightly longer shot of the farmhouse's exterior as the lights go off inside, and then, it cuts to Garfield and Odie sleeping in front of the fireplace. Some time later, after the fire has burnt out, Odie opens his eyes and, after nudging Garfield and getting no response, walks off. However, Garfield immediately wakes up and, seeing that Odie's gone, starts looking for him, walking over to a window and looking out to see Odie run inside the barn. Curious, he goes out there and looks through the open door, watching Odie attach the wooden handle of the plunger to a knot in the piece of wood. He then climbs up a stack consisting of a trunk and a crate and hides behind a paper box, watching Odie, after tying the hand-rake to the rod, covering what he's made with a paper bag. He picks up the homemade object and runs out the door with it, all while Garfield continues watching, only to slip off the top of the stack, which, in turn, causes the box up there to tip over, spilling its contents on him. Said contents is a bundle of letters that, when Garfield picks them up and looks at them, he realizes are fifty years old. This sequence is set to the song, You Can Never Find an Elf When You Need One, which is sung by Lou Rawls and Desiree Goyette, which is this really jazzy number about not being able to find help when trying to deliver something for Christmas, ending with them saying that one finds you, per the magic of Christmas (the opening music to it is just a few seconds longer in the original version). Frankly, I've always found this song to be rather pointless, its relevance to the scene in question being very sketchy. Maybe they felt they needed something to keep the special from going into dead air for a couple of minutes but if they'd simply scored it, I think it would have worked just fine. Not everything warrants a song, you know?
Following this, there's a moment where Jon and Doc Boy, acting like excitable little kids, wake up their dad and ask him if it's time to open their presents yet. Irritated, he tells them no, since it's 1:30, and when they try to argue that it is now technically Christmas morning, he tells them to go to bed, which they do, reluctantly. Come morning, once the boys are up, Dad asks them if they want to do chores, have breakfast, or open presents. Needless to say, they opt for presents, and short dissolve shows them doing so, ending with them sitting around and admiring their gifts. Garfield, however, shows that Christmas isn't over yet and presents Grandma with the letters he found. Grandma is quite surprised to find that they're love letters that Grandpa sent her when they were young and courting and, after reading a little to herself, tells Garfield they're the nicest presents she could have received, patting him on the head as she thanks him. That's when Odie comes in, barking excitedly and motioning for him to follow, which Garfield does. Odie removes the paper bag from what he made the night before, presenting Garfield with it. When asked what it is, Odie demonstrates by having the hand-rake scratch his back and stomach, revealing it to be a back scratcher. Amazed at this, Garfield tries it himself and is genuinely pleased. He tells Odie, "Sometimes you amaze me. This is the best present a cat could ever get. Now and then, you're something special," and hugs him genuinely, with Odie making happy sound. Everyone else can't help but "aw" in a mushy manner at this, which leads to Garfield announcing that Christmas, first and foremost, is about the loving. With that, the special ends with everyone singing the song, A Good Old Fashioned Christmas, which is basically a country-style, square dance kind of number, as they all dance and enjoy each other's company for the rest of the day.
As you might expect, the special's music, composed by Ed Bogas and Desiree Goyette, is made up of instrumental variations of various Christmas songs, like Jingle Bells and O Christmas Tree, the latter of which you hear, fittingly, when Garfield is trying to put the star up top. You also hear instrumental versions of the special's various songs, particularly Can't Wait Till Christmas, and when Jon really wakes Garfield up at the beginning, if you listen closely, you can hear the instrumental of Here Comes Garfield, the opening number of the very first special, with the same name. Not much else to say about the music, seeing as how I already went into detail about the songs.