September 28, 2008

‘Igor’ Lacks That Special Charm

When kids wander distractedly about the theater; couples nudge each other as they identify the voice actors ("ooh, that's Jay Leno"), and your 12-year-old daughter squirms about, rests her head on your shoulder, and starts cracking her knuckles during an animated movie, you know someone has taken a wrong turn at Albuquerque. Such is the case with "Igor."

What went wrong? Is Pixar the only studio that can get animation right these days?

Here's an anecdote: I attended the recent program "Evening at the Opera" by the Bismarck Civic Chorus. I was amused by Menotti's "The Telephone" and liked the way Puccini laid down a tune. Then Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte" wafted effortlessly throughout the Belle and all else was forgotten as I was transported to that place where pure meets bliss.

Watching "Igor," I was reminded of "Amadeus" and how Pixar is to all challengers what Mozart was to his rival Salieri. "Wall-E" weightlessly took flight and filled our imaginations with a tale both fresh and engaging. It was as if the filmmakers at Pixar found the hidden pool of eternal stories and simply started drawing water out by the bucket.

"Igor" was made by passionate fans of animated storytelling - the way Salieri was passionate about making music - but the strain and the sweat from their exertion shows in every frame. The result is like Salieri's operas, a lot of what sounds like music, but isn't catchy, and quickly escapes the memory like air released from a balloon.

The storytelling in "Igor" is as jumbled as the visual design is cluttered, so cluttered that it takes too much effort to know what to look at and so jumbled that the story demands too much concentration. One of the great strengths of the best animated movies is a simple (though not simple-minded) approach that makes clear that the slipper is important and getting it on the right foot is what's at stake.

"Igor" also lacks originality - a tricky word since nothing is truly original, not even "Wall-E" - in the nagging sense of everything feeling shoplifted. The visual design has Tim Burton's "Nightmare Before Christmas" written all over it. And everything from "Sunset Boulevard" to "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" to "Phantom of the Opera" gets a nod and a wink. I call it the "Shrek" syndrome, nothing new, everything borrowed.

This isn't truly terrible, though. The Burton-esque character designs with a villain's head shaped like an onion and a heroine's spiked eyelashes and asymmetrical arms and legs that give the impression of her being forever on the verge of toppling over has a genuine appeal. I had a lot of fun admiring the artistry at play in "Igor." Then I'd pinch myself and get back to the work of caring about the story.

Director Anthony Leondis does have something to say with "Igor." A dark, cloud-shrouded world with a king (Jay Leno) who holds contests to award the next great frightening invention to keep the people cowering and in line, is a fairly well-veiled allegory - until the ending makes it too explicit - for how the powers-that-be keep the people of America so fearful that they haven't the time to really notice what's going on. This "family movie" is essentially a remake of Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine."

So, back to my question: "What went wrong?" Which would a child, or most adults, rather watch, a charming little romance between a pair of robots or a polemic about the abuse of power? And yes, of course, that last question is rhetorical.

"Igor" is rated PG for some thematic elements, scary images and mild language.

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