Life must be hell for anyone trying to release a low-budget computer-animated feature nowadays. Pixar set a high bar for quality, and inspired competing animation studios to commit significant resources and talent to their productions. When the guys with the vast resources also have top-notch filmmakers in their arsenal, it's hard for a smaller effort with clever ideas to get noticed.
Thus the fate of Igor, an independent production whose theatrical release from Fox came and went with hardly any notice. An uneven film, its charm lies in its morbid humor and energetic voice-acting. But there's a nagging feeling throughout that with more time and money, the film could have better-realized its visual scheme and quirky story.
Igor takes place in the gloomy land of Malaria, a once happy, sunny country now covered by ever-present clouds that block the sunlight. The clouds long ago killed crops and dampened spirits, creatign the kind of barren, desolate landscape in which you might find a wild-eyed madman heedlessly building a horrific invention. Indeed, evil scientists are now ubiquitous, and each has his own stock creepy castle and lab assistant named Igor.
The particular Igor of this underdog-overcomes-adversity story always wanted to be an evil scientist, but since he had a hunchback, he was automatically sent to Igor school to train to be a stereotypical lab assistant. When his inept boss dies in a lab accident less than a week before an annual competition, Igor sees the opportunity to build his own invention--a variation on Frankenstein's monster--and thereby prove his worth and become a star. Of course, things don't go smoothly when Igor's invention comes to life as a kind woman, not a harbinger of the apocalypse.
Note that the profession Igor aspires to is "evil scientist." The characters the film references are usually "mad scientists" who work not out of malice but out of bling ambition. Igor's allegory instead looks at a world where people have convinced themselves that they must be evil to survive. The king, voiced by Jay Leno, rose to power when he came up with the idea of threatening the world with evil inventions to regain the wealth that the clouds took away. Now he's worried that Dr. Schadenfreude, the world's leading evil scientist, has become such a celebrity by routinely winning the competition that if someone doesn't beat him this year, he'll snatch the throne. However, Schadenfreude is actually a fraud who manages to steal the winning invention every single year.
Much of this convoluted setup comes out in brief lines of dialogue, and may confuse less-than-attentive parents, let alone their children. And some of the plot mechanisms make little sense. For example, both Schadenfreude and the king expect a great invention from Igor's scientist, whom the film clearly establishes as an inept buffoon.
But if the plot confuses the kids, the characters will keep them entertained. John Cusack voices Igor as the straight man, although his Igor duties sometimes require a fake, creepy voice. Igor's two previous, small-scale inventions serve as his comic-relief buddies. Steve Buscemi gets the most laughs as Scamper, a wise-cracking rabbit who laments the meaninglessness of existence and repeatedly attempts suicide. Unfortunately for him, Igor made him immortal, so his tireless efforts to off himself are for naught. Sean Hayes's Brain--a less-than-brilliant brain in a jar--has his moments, but relies too heavily on jokes about his stupidity. Eddie Izzard lends a nice Euro-trash accent to Shaudenfreude, the standout of the film's two villains.
Director Tony Leondis and his crew strike a nice balance between the dark, moody horror landscape and the vibrancy expected from family animation by focusing on rich, dark reds and purples. The character design is simple, but effective in bringing the emotion across. At the same time, the plotting and staging feel clumsy at times.
While suicide humor and the monster themes of Igor may be too much for younger kids (or older ones, depending on their parents' sensibilities), it's nice to see family entertainment that isn't afraid to veer into the demented. If the film consistently equalled its best moments, it'd be on par with the year's better animated efforts. As is, it's still worth a look.
There is also an alternate opening, which includes different voice-over and a news-reel-style introduction to Malaria. While a clever idea, the concept isn't very well executed--there's no actual newsreel footage, just a bunch of magazine covers and cheesy transitions. The final cut's opening provides a clearer vision of the setting and the characters.
In the commentary, Leondis and McKenna tease us with mention of introductions that they squashed--including a two-minute graveyard sequence that was "too scary." (The alternate opening on the DVD only includes a few extra graveyard shots.) These other alternate openings sound more interesting than the one on the disc.
Rather than a tiresome button-through menu navigation, the DVD delivers its four concept art galleries in fast-paced video slideshows that spend about three seconds on each image. While most will appreciate the quick, effortless run-through, those who really relish examining these things will be disappointed that rewind, fast-forward and pause are disabled during playback. Each slide, however, has its own chapter. The galleries total approximately 5 minutes and 45 seconds, and include Set & Production Design (3:00), Posters (1:30), Characters (0:45) and Storyboards (0:30).
In addition to the mandatory "City of Embers Trailer that you must view or skip before accessing the main menu, there are two more thrilling trailers for movies that aren't Igor in the Special Features section. (Why Igor's trailer was omitted is anyone's guess.) The cheap-looking, direct-to-DVD gems are "Angel Wars: The Messengers" and "Garfield: Pet Squad."