2008-09-19 (General release)

While classic horror movies might have inspired Chris McKenna to write Igor, his reworking of the material as a comic children’s film is more banal than allusive. Despite a talented cast and an excess of beautiful animation that is forged into a disturbing, Tim Burtonesque grotesquerie, the movie pits its voice actors against monochromatic dialogue and a storyline determined to reinforce every social, sexual, and cultural stereotype it can.

Igor begins in a kid-enticing world of everyday morals turned upside down. The kingdom of Malaria has found its niche as a fulcrum of evil. Here, an elite group of physically perfect scientists subjugates a drone class of Igors. After gaining their Yes Masters degrees, the generic Igors face lives of crippling obsequiousness until one especially feisty Igor (John Cusack), assigned to Dr. Glickenstein (John Cleese), takes advantage of his master’s death to prove his own creativity. From here the movie hurtles downhill into sunny normality as Igor accidentally generates life without evil, in the form of Eva (Molly Shannon), and then restores the kingdom’s goal to the pursuit of good.

On one level, the film resonates with the daily trials of being young today. Tall and impossibly thin and spiky, the evil scientists are egotistical and manipulative, cruel and irrational. The diminutive Igors can only survive through hiding their intelligence, appearing as small and insignificant as they can, and scurrying abjectly to obey humiliating commands. No child forced to accede to a baffling adult rule could fail to sympathize with the central Igor, especially as his only escape from tyranny is his secret life with two strange friends he creates himself, and who appear only when no evil scientist is around.

Igor also trades in common archetypes. The death of Igor’s master in an ill-advised experiment creates the adult-free zone in which children outwit the sanctioning adults who would imprison them psychologically or physically for their own “protection.” Eva, electrified into life from a collection of left-over body parts, inspires her maker towards resolution. But the film never offers any original ideas to transfigure or subvert the familiar.

For example, the plot fences Eva into a very old-fashioned position. Literally a man’s creation, she helps to “civilize” the all-male society of Igor and his friends, Scamper (Steve Buscemi) and Brain (Sean Hayes), by modeling appropriate behavior and giving gifts, never achieving “success” in her own right. Even her gladiatorial combat skills are temporary and, again, the result of male manipulation, this time at the hands of Dr. Schadnefreude (Eddie Izzard). Only in acting, an avocation Eva discovers when mistakenly brainwashed by watching tapes of The Actors’ Studio, does she show a kind of calling, but this too is limited. Like every piece of cultural indoctrination churned from a studio large or small, Igor signifies the restoration of good order to Malaria with the hero and heroine’s falling in love. This is not a movie to which thinking adults should expose young female viewers.

True, the fact that neither Eva nor Igor is movie-star beautiful superficially challenges those anime’s sexualized waifs or Disney’s wasp-waisted heroines. And both Igor and Eva are social outcasts by reason of their birth (his with a hump, hers as a man-made mélange), and together they achieve the liberation of an entire country. But their coupling also signals their perpetual exile into a limbo of separate but equal segregation. Here Igor follows the example of Shrek, which ran screaming into cliché from its initially radical message that a princess could fall in love with an ogre without his turning into a charming prince. When Fiona turned into an ogre at night, all risk of miscegenation was resolved.

On the one hand, movies like Igor or WALL∙E, with its metal-to-metal romance, teach younger viewers that those who look or behave differently still share deep human needs and emotions. On the other hand, they attempt to convince viewers, young and old, that the mere acknowledgment of such similarity proves a society’s tolerance, even if all other confining structures remain the same. Igor cons its audience into thinking that all is well and good.

RATING 3 / 10