Kids are fascinated with monsters and scary stuff, so why aren't there more good kid-friendly horror movies? With the exception of TV, I only found a handful, including such gems as Ernest Scared Stupid (1991), Hocus Pocus (1993) and The Haunted Mansion (2003). On the plus side, there's The Watcher in the Woods (1980), Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983) and The Witches (1990). The problem is pretty obvious: these movies are either too scary or too stupid, and the middle ground is a very thin line. So if nothing else, writer Chris McKenna and director Anthony Leondis, both making their big-screen debut with Igor, have conjured an uneasy way to pull it off, even if the experience will be radically different for both parents and kids.
Igor is set in a perpetually cloudy kingdom where mad scientists compete in the annual "evil science fair." The winner's diabolical creation will be used to blackmail the rest of the world so that the kingdom can continue to support itself. John Cusack voices the hunchbacked title hero, an assistant who dreams of inventing his own creations. When his master (voiced by John Cleese) meets with an accident, he gets his chance. The first thing off his workbench is a giant monster called Eva (voiced by Molly Shannon), who accidentally turns out to be good. There's a whole subplot about another evil scientist Dr. Schadenfreude (voiced by Eddie Izzard) who wants to steal Eva so that he can win the competition and overthrow the king (voiced by, of all people, Jay Leno!).
The filmmakers use the expected, obligatory computer animation to tell their tale, and it fares slightly better than Space Chimps or Fly Me to the Moon, but well below the high standard set by WALL-E. The characters' facial features and textures are smooth and bland, but the designs behind them -- such as Eva's grotesquely mismatched arms -- are fairly imaginative. Certain visuals were cribbed from things like The Nightmare Before Christmas and old sci-fi movies (like the 1950s version of The Fly). Action scenes are jerky and rushed, but the sets and props, even if they lack texture, are nicely shaped and colored.
The main thrust of the film consists of Igor trying to convince Eva as well has himself to be evil, when they both tend toward goodness. Igor has two sidekicks, both inventions. Brain (voiced by Sean Hayes) is a brain in a jar with a very low IQ, and he spends the movie making inane comments. And Scamper (voiced by Steve Buscemi) is a kind of gnarled, wiry bunny rabbit, cynical and suicidal -- but immortal. He provides the movie's most vicious and acid line readings, and the biggest, darkest laughs. He's the saving grace for bored parents, but also a bit on the nasty side for very young kids (the movie has a "PG" rating as opposed to a "G").
For kids, there's the usual "believe in yourself" plot that drives almost every single family movie made these days, from Cars to Kung Fu Panda. It's almost as if studios are afraid of lawsuits from angry parents' organizations, so they keep grinding out the one and only "safe" story, rather than risking making something surprising or unusual, or very simply telling a good story. The character starts the movie with a misguided vision of himself, that he's a loser or mean or selfish or whatever, then learns to be a good person and love himself (usually through the discovery and acceptance of a kind of family unit). Most kids never feel like they fit in (it's part of growing up), but these particular movies are so controlled and overwritten that they fail to capture any kind of necessary universality. For example, no kid is going to watch Igor wrestling with his "evil" and "good" tendencies and think, "That's me!"
Consider some of the best kids' movies: The Wizard of Oz (1939), Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), My Neighbor Totoro (1988) or Babe (1995); they're very simply weird and wonderful adventure stories. In the end, the heroes learn that though there are monstrous things in the world, hope and a good heart can sometimes win out. They rarely learned anything about themselves, or needed to improve in some way. Igor almost refuses to acknowledge the weird and monstrous things in the story. The heroes fight by passively looking inward. Their psychological breakthrough somehow coincides with the downfall of the bad guys.Hence, the two sides of Igor -- the dark humor and the safe plot -- never meet. I'd probably recommend the film to families who wanted to and were ready to see it, but with the warning that it's a dividing experience. Kids may actually get the short end of the stick, since they're essentially seeing the same film as Kung Fu Panda, but not as good. Parents will get all the laughs, but kids may not get the jokes.