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"Igor" Blu-ray: A Sadly Disappointing Underachiever

by on March 18, 2009

Igor is a movie with a great concept and some great ideas. But it’s also a movie hamstrung by a lack of money and story development. It seems to aspire to the same kind of creepy-cool-funny as The Nightmare Before Christmas, and one can easily imagine a Pixar or a DreamWorks teasing a great movie out of its premise. But it doesn’t have anything like the charm or wit it could have had. At best, it’s an outstanding demo reel for the Sparx studio (a firm populated by ex-Disney Paris animators), demonstrating their ability to turn out feature-quality animation on a very tight budget. But it’s also an object lesson that if you pay for a movie that is quick and cheap, sometimes you get exactly what you pay for.

Scamper, Igor, and 'Brian'Igor is set in the country of Malaria, where mysterious cloud cover creates a permanent gloom and ensures that Evil Science is the only viable export. Every year, the president of Malaria hosts the Evil Science fair, where the best, brightest, and most sinister minds compete to create a new Evil invention, which is then used to extract protection money from the rest of the world: Pay up or we’ll let this thing loose outside our borders. The permanent underclass in Malaria are the Igors, those unfortunate souls born with hunchbacks, who are relegated to menial tasks and lisping “Yes, Master.” But the Igor of the title (voiced by John Cusack) dreams of becoming an Evil Scientist of his own with the help of some of his own creations: Scamper (Steve Buscemi), a resurrected rabbit who deeply resents his immortality and tests it at every opportunity, and Brain (Sean Hayes), a blithering idiot of a brain in a jar. When opportunity strikes, Igor and his friends manage to bring an enormous, cobbled-together Frankenstein’s monster named Eva (Molly Shannon) to life, only to find that she has no talent for Evil and, after a mishap at a reprogramming facility, decides that she wants to be an actress instead.

The film has a lot of gloriously silly ideas flying around in it, but none of them coalesce into anything more than that. This is fine when you’re talking about throwaway one-liners (such as the “Yes, Masters” degree all Igors graduate with), but nearly everything else is presented with the same casualness instead of being developed into something truly funny or memorable. The movie’s opening scene is an incredibly talky exposition dump that runs for way too long, and it sets the tone for the rest of the movie. Things tend to be declared rather than shown or played out, meaning that the movie won’t let a joke grow or an emotional moment get the resonance it needs. The all-star voice cast also turns out to be more disappointing than not. Steve Buscemi’s Scamper often gets the best lines and the most genuine laughs, but John Cusack’s Igor is disappointingly bland. Sean Hayes’ Brain is just unfocused manic idiocy without the dialogue to be more than that.

But what's my motivation in this scene?The CGI animation is serviceable, with the fine textures probably being most interesting thing about it. You get an almost tactile sense of Igor’s coarse burlap outfit, the lab’s rusting metal, Eva’s dead and semi-decayed skin, and the castle stones. They certainly seemed to come through the beautifully sharp Blu-ray version of the movie. The character design also seems to invite comparison to The Nightmare Before Christmas, though it doesn’t come out well when so juxtaposed. On the other hand, the film’s look is certainly distinct from the CGI we’ve grown to expect from the usual suspects. Every scene could only use a single light source, it’s explained on the commentary track, and the final results look a whole lot better than they should. If nothing else, then, Igor reflects the state of the technology: It’s not too hard to turn out decent-looking CGI movie nowadays. The Blu-ray also gets a 5.1 DTS-HD audio soundtrack that is more than satisfactory. There is also a Spanish soundtrack, along with subtitles in Spanish and English for the hearing impaired.

The biggest extra on the Blu-ray is the commentary track with director Tony Leondis, writer Chris McKenna, and producer Max Howard, which perhaps inadvertently explains why the movie feels so underdeveloped. The most commonly repeated phrases seem to be, “we didn’t have time,” “we ran out of money,” and “we didn’t have the budget.” Indeed, one comment early on notes that the talky opening sequence was redone because they weren’t happy with the first attempt, and they locked down the final version after two or three iterations. Considering that Pixar will redo scenes 30 or 40 times before being satisfied, such a comment suggests that Igor‘s makers had to settle for “good enough” more often than “good,” and the surprise isn’t that the movie is so lackluster and bland but that it isn’t a complete and unmitigated disaster. If anything, one begins to feel a bit disappointed that there weren’t sufficient resources to turn Igor into something more substantial and satisfying, because one senses that this crew could have made that movie. If only.

Yeah, I don't get it eitherThe discarded opening sequence is another extra included on the Blu-ray, and I actually like it more than the one in the film. It communicates largely the same information, only much more quickly and without quite as much obvious exposition. I doubt the kids in the audience couldn’t have figured out what they needed to from it. A pre-production art gallery also reveals exactly how much hand-drawn art goes into a CGI-animated movie. There’s quite a bit of talent on display there, and a lot more energy than makes it to the screen. One even begins to sense that Igor might have been better off as a traditional hand-drawn animated feature than a CGI one.

It’s a bit of a shame that Igor isn’t better than it is, since it seems intent to wander a road less traveled by American feature animation studios, and was aiming for something genuinely offbeat. Unfortunately, it seems that the people with the power of the purse will point to its eccentricity, and not to the seemingly impossible production schedule and miniscule budget, to explain why it was a commercial failure. Its disappointing reception will make it that much harder for comparably quirky projects to get off the ground, and American animation will be the poorer for it.

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