In the kingdom of Malaria, where new CGI kids' flick Igor takes place, the weather has changed. The once-sunny farmlands are now shrouded in a permanent, toxic rainstorm and everyone has become poor. At least, until King Malbert comes along and reinvents the economy by instructing everyone to build evil machines they'll unleash on the rest of the world — unless the world pays them off. The world quakes in fear and showers Malaria with money. It's a wee liberal parable about the U.S. economy, whose industries pump toxins into the atmosphere and menace the world with high-tech weapons. And what will save the world from the nasty, bad U.S.? Hollywood show business! Spoilers and political allegory ahead . . . When Igor opens, Malaria has become a rich, high-tech land run by evil mad scientists and their enslaved Igors. But there's one little problem: an Igor (voiced by John Cusack) has broken protocol and built his own cute/scary monster who would rather do musical theater than wreak destruction. After his mad scientist master is killed in an explosion, Igor realizes that it's his chance to take over the scientist's lab and enter his own creation in his nation's annual Evil Science Fair. Igor has already invented an immortal, super-intelligent bunny (voiced wonderfully by Steve Buscemi) named Scamper and an idiotic brain in a jar named Brain. These creatures serve as his MST3K-esque buddies, and help him create his best invention: Life, or at least a reanimated bunch of body parts ala Frankenstein. The creature they bring to life is an enormous, weirdly-proportioned woman named Eva (several kids in the audience where I watched Igor seemed confused that their favorite character from Wall-E had suddenly shown up in the body of an Emily the Strange ripoff monster). Of course, Eva is supposed to be evil, but for some reason the "evil bone" Igor has implanted in her hand doesn't work and all she wants to do is play with blind orphans, pick flowers, and become a musical theater actress starring in Annie.
The premise of the movie, that there is a working class of "Igors" who toil for a ruling class of "evil scientists," is funny and provides a few delightful moments of "mwhahaha." But this central idea quickly falls away when Igor takes over the lab, and the role of head honcho. It then becomes a race to the Evil Science Contest, with the reigning evil mad scientist Schadenfreude (Eddie Izzard) trying to steal Igor's idea so that he can win. Eventually, it becomes a silly tug-of-war between the two men — one homely and brilliant, the other slick and conniving — for the affections of the Annie-obsessed Eva. Both want to use her to win the contest, but Igor's intentions are marginally kinder because he actually nurses a growing affection for the humongous creature who constantly spouts actress piffle about "centering herself" and "doing yoga" and writing things in her "body memory notebook." The film completely fails once it's taken this strange turn into making fun of Hollywood culture with Eva, as well as the weird amalgam of showbiz and science that is the Evil Mad Science contest. There is just something profoundly wrong and unfunny about using a mad science story to tell a story about Hollywood, which is in turn trying to tell us something about weapons of mass destruction. It's not that the film becomes too complicated for kids, or too horrifying for them as some critics have said. It's just that it becomes a poorly-constructed mess.
Possibly the only saving grace of the movie comes when we enter the homestretch and finally get to watch the Evil Mad Science contest. There's a brief moment of genuine humor when King Malbert gets interviewed by an invisible guy on a talk show (the invisible guy is voiced amusingly by Arsenio Hall, who really deserves better than this and everything that's happened to his career since the 1990s). And the contest itself, where a now-evil Eva sings "Tomorrow" while beating the shit out of half a dozen giant robots, is pure, demented genius. It made me wish the filmmakers had had the guts (or maybe the studio support) to make the movie they obviously wanted to: An evil, steampunk Annie filled with monsters. Instead, they gave us this Hollywood-liberal allegory about a nation whose "product" is high-tech intimidation. I won't give away the ending, but suffice to say that Malaria gets its comeuppance for menacing the world, and for lying about everything, and for saying that people who look different are "ugly." But the allegedly happy ending feels smug and fake, as if somebody had decided to redo Team America: World Police but without any irony or self-awareness. Igor could have gone a lot of ways. It could have been about how anyone can master science, even a downtrodden Igor. Or it could have been about how being an ugly monster doesn't matter as long as you're smart, hopeful, and have friends. It could even have been about how polluting, war-mongering kingdoms are run by slick liars. Instead, it tries to be about all of that — and delivers a message as muddy as the world it tries to illuminate.