My personal theology allows for the existence of Movie Hell, a fiery place where bad films go when they die, to be torn apart and ridiculed for all eternity by movie critics, who of course also go there. (It’s our trade-off for being so beloved and revered while we’re alive.) Surrounding the gates of Movie Hell, skewered on pikes, are the severed heads of all the live-action movies based on TV cartoons. They are there to ward off travelers of the underworld who might otherwise stumble into Movie Hell and never be able to escape.
“Look out!” one might say to his traveling companion. “It’s that Flintstones movie — not the one with John Goodman, but the sequel, with Mark Addy!”
“How horrifying!” the other would say. “There’s Fat Albert, right next to Josie and the Pussycats!”
“I’ve heard of people claiming to enjoy Josie and the Pussycats ironically,” the first says, “mostly because it stars camp icons Parker Posey and Alan Cumming.”
“Yeah, but it’s still a terrible movie,” the second replies. “Besides, I’m kind of tired of people enjoying things ironically. I don’t know, once you’re over the age of 30, it’s time to grow up and quit calling terrible things ‘awesome,’ you know?”
“I hear you. Anyway, we better get out of here — Mr. Magoo starring Leslie Nielsen is staring at us, and it’s creeping me out.”
Anyway, my point is, Inspector Gadget is awful.
It was made by the Disney people in 1999, at a time when studios were racing to see who could make the worst live-action film based on a cartoon, with Brendan Fraser almost single-handedly keeping the industry alive. In every case, audiences watched the miserable results and responded: “YAY! WE HAVE WASTED OUR MONEY AND TIME! LET’S COME BACK AND WATCH THE NEXT ONE TOO! WE ARE FAT, STUPID IDIOTS! LOL!” But what I kept thinking, especially with Inspector Gadget, was this: With all the goofy sound effects and colorful computer-generated images, you obviously wanted to make a cartoon. So why didn’t you just make a cartoon?
Inspector Gadget wouldn’t be nearly as annoying if it were animated, because you expect a certain level of whimsicality and mindlessness from a children’s cartoon. It would also be less annoying if I didn’t have to watch it. If I didn’t have to watch it, there would always be the chance that it was really good. It would be like Schrödinger’s cat, locked away in the Netflix queue, either good or bad, possibly both at once. It’s not until I watch it that it becomes one or the other, and then there’s no going back.
Based on a 1980s cartoon that was itself an homage to Get Smart, the Inspector Gadget film stars Matthew Broderick as a dopey security guard named John Brown who really wants to be a police officer but is told, rather improbably, that he’s under-qualified, presumably because he lacks a mustache and a superiority complex. But as luck would have it, he is murdered in cold blood by a billionaire villain named Sanford Scolex (Rupert Everett)! This is presented in a horrific explosion that ends with John in a full-body cast — but it’s underscored by jaunty music, so it’s totally lighthearted and fun! Wheee!
Without his consent or permission, John is rebuilt, RoboCop-style, as a mechanized superman. He now has an infinite number of devices built into his body — roller skates, parachutes, blow torches, marital aids, etc. — which he can summon by saying, “Go go gadget [whatever]!” He does not appear to have a gun, which would be handy. He can also extend his arms, legs, and neck by 20 or 30 feet. The obvious gadget device, the one that juveniles who watched the show in the ’80s giggled about on the playground, is ignored. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, ask a boy.
Now John is a cop, sort of, or at least he gets to pretend to be one, screwing up cases through his obliviousness and naivete while the real police clean up his messes. “You’re not a real policeman,” says Chief Quimby (Dabney Coleman). “You’re just a publicity stunt that we have to put up with.” Chief Quimby is 100 percent correct, but since he’s the curmudgeon and not the hero, the movie has to pretend that he’s unfairly persecuting Inspector Gadget. You will find if you watch a lot of Disney movies that they follow this rule uniformly: Whatever the heroes do is OK and whatever the villains do is wrong, even in cases where the opposite is obviously true. You will also find if you watch a lot of Disney movies that you’ll start thinking Tim Allen is the biggest movie star in the world.
Inspector Gadget’s love interest is Brenda (Joely Fisher), a scientist whose father invented the robo-technology. She helps Gadget adjust to his new abilities by practicing with him in the park. He says, “Go go gadget oil slick!” but instead of oil, a tsunami of toothpaste comes gushing out of his finger, covering Brenda and himself. They laugh and roll around in it, which is gross, but wait — why does he even HAVE that feature? A little bit of toothpaste would be useful, but enough to fill a swimming pool? Why would he need that? And where is it coming from? Did the scientists alter one of his glands or organs to produce it biologically? Is there just a massive store of it somewhere in his body? Whose idea was this? What were they thinking? The whole thing reeks of malpractice and inefficiency, and I can’t abide it.
The rest of the movie is loud and stupid and unfunny, as usual, but it does have a hidden message that I discovered on the DVD. There’s a montage of newspaper stories showing Inspector Gadget fighting low-level crime, and this is one of them:
Read the first word of every line in the middle column, starting with “Art,” and you get this: “Art Repola can blow me the cheap arrogant jerk off ass wipe tightwad idiot he sucks.” Art Repola is a Disney visual effects producer. This must be an inside joke from someone. But who? Well, in the final piece of the montage, we see this:
Reading down the second column, we learn “Headlines Montage By Van Ling,” and sure enough, Van Ling was a visual effects supervisor on the film. Van and Art probably had a good laugh about the hidden message, making them the only two people to have been entertained by any aspect of the film. And now the film’s severed head adorns the outer gates of Movie Hell. Go go gadget damnation!