September 18, 2008

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Igor (PG)
A thoughtful, ambitious hunchback, a suicidal bunny and a giant Frankenstein’s monster-ish student of the Actors’ Studio attempt to win an evil science fair in Igor, a strange animated movie that would be more at home late at night on Cartoon Network.

At night, for example, the evil but phony Dr. Schadenfreude (Eddie Izzard) could be even more dastardly. As it is, he smacks around Jaclyn (Jennifer Coolidge), his girlfriend and partner in crime. You see, in the land of Malaria, the economy is built on the inventions of evil scientists, who then blackmail the world not to use these creations on it. (When storm clouds showed up years ago, the king, realizing that his people could no longer make a living on farming, decided to make Malaria rich and strong by inciting fear in the rest of the world. Make of that what you will.) And Dr. Schadenfreude is the evilest and most famous one of them all — so evil and so famous that he might soon have the popularity to dethrone the king (Jay Leno) and put the crown on his own head. Holding him back, however, is a serious lack of talent. Since he hasn’t the skill to come up with any evil inventions himself, he sends Jaclyn out to pose as the girlfriend of other mad scientists and steal their inventions. Apparently, all the mad scientists have girlfriends in Malaria (the same one, as it turns out), just as all of them have Igors, the hunch-backed, slurring assistants to the mad scientists whose main jobs seem to be pulling the switch to juice up the inventions and taking abuse. For our hero Igor (John Cusack), the insults he must bear at the hands of his mad scientist are particularly difficult to take because the scientist is an idiot and Igor himself has had much more successful inventions (not that he can tell anyone about it; Igors are not allowed to invent things), including Scamper (Steve Buscemi), a bunny that can not be killed and is therefore having an existential crisis, and Brain (Sean Hayes), a brain in a jar attached to robot arms and a mouth (despite being mostly brain, Brain is not all that smart — when he attempted to write his name on his jar, it came out “Brian”). Luckily for Igor, his mad scientist is so stupid that he blows himself up, giving Igor time to work on his experiment, which he plans to enter, under his scientist’s name, in the upcoming annual evil science fair. Like any good mad scientist, Igor sets about putting together body parts, sewing a skinny leg and arm onto a body that also has a massive leg and arm and creating a creature with a giant neck but big doll eyes and a 1930s movie star bob. Perhaps it’s the hair and the big red lips that make the creature susceptible to a certain kind of suggestion — after bringing her to life doesn’t instill in her the right amount of evil, Igor takes her for a brain wash with hopes of turning her into a psycho killer. The remote gets in the wrong hands, however, and the channel is changed from scenes of violence and horror to Inside the Actors’ Studio with James Lipton. (I pause to let you fill in your own James Lipton joke.) Thusly, when the “wash” is finished, instead of finding a lumbering killer, Igor opens the door to find Eva (Molly Shannon), an aspiring actress who wants to know what her motivation is.

Dr. Schadenfreude? Actress humor? A suicidal Steve-Buscemi-voiced unkillable rabbit? Do you see the pattern of clever adult humor? And Igor is clever — I laughed at the James Lipton appearance, at many of Scamper’s sarcastic toss-off lines and at the name Schadenfreude. But while I was laughing, I heard kids in the audience squirming. There were trips to the bathroom, trips to the concession stand. I heard a young boy (or girl — he/she was very young) discuss with deep seriousness the need for a drink and some popcorn with his mother. She was saying no, but he was persistent, pulling out the “my tummy hurts” argument. I never heard how that situation resolved itself because I was chuckling at something else onscreen but clearly the kid behind me was not. A lot of kids were not. Even with some crazy Tim Burton-ish visuals, some action and some wacky bunny-trying-to-kill-itself highjinks, the kids were not entertained. It was too much talking, too much situational and referential humor, not nearly enough poop jokes.

Of course, to say that this is a cartoon for adults doesn’t make it a good fit either. Even though Schadenfreude threatens his girlfriend (it’s a cartoon, I know, but something about the tone of their relationship seemed unusually, unpleasantly dark), he isn’t nearly as much fun as a serious bad-guy villain could be. The message about being a good person even when your king is encouraging you to be evil serves as a very ham-fisted moral to the story. And of course, the Igor, as the mild-mannered good guy, is not nearly weird enough to be a good for-adults protagonist.

This is no Aqua Teen Hunger Force but perhaps with a little roughening of the edges and in shorter bursts, it would have fit in nicely with that and other oddball late-night cartoons. As it is, it’s too dark (and, based on the reactions of the kids in the screening with me, too boring) for younger audiences and too weird for older ones. C

Rated PG for some thematic elements, scary images, action and mild language. Directed by Anthony Leondis and written by Chris McKenna, Igor is an hour and 26 minutes long and distributed by MGM. The movie opens in wide release on Friday, Sept. 19.