*Minor spoilers ahead!
If you thought you’d seen the last of the mischievous alien invader Zim, think again.
The new Netflix/Nickelodeon reboot of the cult classic Invader Zim series has been a long awaited return to this bizarre and gruesome world. It’s been 13 years since the last episode of Invader Zim aired, but admittedly I never really thought that was going to be the true end — merely a pause while the rest of society caught up and was finally ready to embrace this show.
The thing about Invader Zim was that is was weird. Really, really weird. And not weird in the way that Adventure Time was weird — Invader Zim was dark weird, vaguely unsettling, and difficult to comprehend for its young audiences. It was in the same vein as Courage the Cowardly Dog, but never managed to reach that iconography (or maybe it did? I think that point can be debated.) It was the oddball in Nickelodeon’s bright and upbeat lineup, generally drawing the crowds fresh off an episode of Cartoon Network’s Misadventures of Flapjack. The show ran a very limited run of only 3 seasons, less than 30 episodes in total, many of which faced production issue after production issue. Several ideas were either rewritten or completely scrapped due to fears from the network that they would be too disturbing for children. Ya, this show was something else.
Despite all that, it found a following of people who adored it, myself included. This strange, terrifying world provided the most unique setting for a truly unique idea — an annoyingly cocky alien wants to prove himself as the greatest invader of the Irken empire, and in an effort to get rid of him, the Irken leaders send him on a faux-mission to conquer Earth, a planet which they care nothing about. The Earth in the show is ugly, drab, and disgusting; Like a futuristic world where the most terrible of humans have been left over, or perhaps this is just how we would appear to intergalactic invaders.
But the catch is that Zim (and indeed, all of the Irken empire) is totally incompetent. Even amongst the most blundering of societies, Zim faces failure after failure. Though these failures are due in very large part to the boy scientist Dib, who immediately suspects Zim and his pet “dog” — a poorly disguised and highly malfunctioning robot named Gir.
This show popularized the kind of dark and out-there humor that would be adopted by many children’s shows in the following years, and practically defined Cartoon Network’s audience, despite being on an entirely different network. The humor is completely random, with Gir garnering the most laughs. The ridiculous sentiments of Zim’s plans are played hilariously seriously, and all of this stacked up against the world’s terrible atmosphere makes for a really funny mix of social commentary and utter absurdity.
So the show returns in 2019 with the hour long film Invader Zim: Enter the Florpus. Does it stack up to its bizarre and beautiful original series?
Well…yes and no. It’s a nice return to form, and it will definitely be recognizable to fans, but on the whole I think it plays it a little safe. Let me explain:
Starting with the positives, the animation on this film is gorgeous. It opens with a really unique looking anime parody that was so beautiful I honestly want Netflix to invest in creating a show entirely in this art style. It looked amazing from the first moment and immediately drew me in. When the style switched back to the Invader Zim look we know, I was pleasantly surprised that the style wasn’t changed drastically, but updated. The new color palettes and advanced animation technology were used to full advantage, making it look sleek and interesting, and giving us some really inventive camera work and art direction. I loved it.
Most of the characters from the original series find their way into this film, and because the plot focuses on Dib and his family, we get a lot more of Dib’s scientist father, Membrane, and his angry sister Gaz. Gaz and Membrane get a lot more characterization than they ever had in the show, and while it slightly deviates from Gaz’s MO, it’s not totally out of character. Dib, Zim, and Gir remain largely the same characters they’ve always been.
That being said, I was expecting a lot more from Gir. His jokes didn’t land for me, and while that could be because I’m an adult now rather than the child I was watching the series, but I really don’t think that’s it.
I think it’s due to a larger issue with the comedy in general — while there were some jokes that definitely had me laughing out loud, there were plenty that I felt they were holding back on. With Gir specifically, it felt like they were almost afraid to do everything with him that they wanted, out of concern that the audience wouldn’t get the schtick. Either that, or the network drew some pretty hard lines. I wanted to see some serious wackiness out of Gir, but he was mostly reduced to funny noises.
And on the note of holding back, I felt that the plot was very safe. Invader Zim is at its best when it throws caution entirely to the wind, and it’s hysterical the lengths that Zim goes to in order to take over Earth, and to beat Dib specifically. He’s not a sympathetic character, and it’s great when his own plans come back to bite him. Enter the Florpus has a pretty standard plot, with few twists or diversions, but I will say that the inciting incident is pretty interesting. It was so interesting, in fact, that I expected it to have some sort of emotional payoff at the end, but it really doesn’t.
I personally didn’t prefer the Dib-centric episodes of the show, so this film was already working against me, but I think even so it focused a little too much on Dib’s relationship with Membrane. And yet even with all that focus, it still couldn’t make that relationship all that compelling for me.
When I say the film was playing to safe, I mean that I wish they would have gone all out with a totally off-the-walls plot that divulged into something kind of dark, because that unexpectedness is what Invader Zim does so well. I understand why they decided to go a different route, considering how much push back the show got in its original run, but this begs another question I had while watching Enter the Florpus:
Who is this film for?
Is it for original Invader Zim fans? If so, those kids are adults now, so an edgier plot would be better suited. But it’s clearly not just for older Zim fans because the humor is still pretty infantile and the film goes out of its way to provide a lot of backstory, in case some brand new viewers were to start here. If that’s the case, then fine, but I don’t expect the majority of this film’s viewership to be people who have never seen the show.
I think it would have been better if they would have gone with an all-out Zim story, without bothering to try and explain anything to new viewers. The thing is, the show itself doesn’t really try to explain anything to viewers. As a kid, you picked up the show with whatever episode happened to be on, and you figured it out. You didn’t need things explained to you. I wish they would have adopted this attitude and ran with it to create the most original Zim story they could think of, rather than something that would have wider appeal.
But this is the double-edged sword that is rebooting: either you make something that totally appeases longtime fans but isolates new viewers, or you make something that is fine for new viewers but falls flat for longtime fans. This is pretty much how I feel about Enter the Florpus.
It’s not bad by any means, and there are still a lot of great moments in there. Most importantly though, we got a new Invader Zim story. I am so happy to have new content from this world that I don’t even mind if it wasn’t perfect. I hope that this means that more Invader Zim is on the table, I would love a full series from Netflix. I hope that Enter the Florpus was a test run for more material.
It’s a perfectly watchable story with some fun little gems, I would definitely say if you’re a fan of Invader Zim you should check this out. And if you weren’t previously an Invader Zim fan, I think this has the potential to make you one.
Final Score: B