Monday, October 08, 2018

Invader ZIM: Inside the Alien's Return to Nickelodeon

Cult classic Invader Zim makes an unlikely return to Nickelodeon for a TV movie.

It’s been over a decade, but the groundbreaking animated sci-fi comedy series, Invader Zim, is finally returning to television with an hour-long TV movie. The brainchild of comic book artist and writer Jhonen Vasquez, the series premiered on Nickelodeon in 2001, but was canceled during production of the second season due to low ratings. Though an ongoing comic materialized in 2015, fans of the cult hit have long hoped for Zim’s return to the small screen.

The original series follows Zim, an incompetent alien with delusions of grandeur who screams a lot, as he repeatedly fails to conquer planet Earth. He’s been sent there along with GIR, his incompetent robot assistant who also screams a lot, by their alien overlords, The Almighty Tallest, who just want Zim as far away as possible from “Operation Impending Doom II,” their second try at taking over the universe (Zim ruined the first attempt). In an effort to gather information about Earthlings, Zim disguises himself as a human child and attends school, where he finds an archnemesis in Dib Membrane, the only kid in class who questions Zim’s green skin.

Den of Geek got the chance to sit down with Jhonen and some of the cast: Richard Horvitz (Zim), Rikki Simons (GIR), Kevin McDonald (Almighty Tallest Purple), and Wally Wingert (Almighty Tallest Red). They asked them a bunch of stupid questions and a couple of sincere ones about Invader Zim: Enter the Florpus! and they kindly put up with it.

Den of Geek didn’t expect to get too many story details out of them, but they figured they’d ask if they’d spoil the entire plot for them anyway.

“Luke dies,” says Jhonen.

“They all die,” Richard adds.

“Tell him about the dinosaurs!” Wally shouts.

So maybe they didn’t get much revealed about the plot or learn what a “florpus” is, but the teaser Nickelodeon released offers some clues. In some shots, Dib looks as though he’s really let himself go. The Zim comic series begins with an unhealthy Dib getting back in shape and into the business of exposing Zim’s alien identity, so it looks like Enter the Florpus! may share some plot elements with the comic.

Taking a further page from the comic series, Vasquez explains how the bulk of the character development in the movie will come from Dib and his family.

“Character-wise, Zim, you can’t change him, he’s incredibly shallow,” Vasquez says. “There’s no introspection whatsoever. GIR, you can’t change him. He’s just an idiot and he’s insane. The only place there was a focus on developing stuff was with the Membrane family. I started with the comics, focusing on having Gaz and Dib feel more like a brother and sister as opposed to just people that hate each other. And their dad is more of a dad as opposed to this incredibly neglectful guy who just seems to have kids in his house.”

The pacing and comedy had to evolve for Florpus as well. Most episodes of the original series were divided into two stories at a little over 10 minutes each, but a feature-length Zim plot requires a different approach.

“There’s more time to develop a joke in 66 minutes,” Jhonen explains. “One of the first things that I thought was at that length we can’t just make a normal episode where they’re screaming all the time. You’ve got to have some changes in tone, and there has to be a little more of a story.”

Zim himself might be incapable of change, but there’s been a lot of technological advancements since series production ceased in 2002. Has any of that made it into the new movie? Does Zim have a smartphone now? Is he on Instagram? Snapchat?

“Technologically, some of the stuff is a little closer to what we use now,” Vasquez admits, “but Zim always existed in this sort of alternate reality, so it didn’t really need to be updated. It was already semi-futuristic. So everybody’s got Fitbits.”

“It was originally going to be called Enter the Fitbit!, but we couldn’t get the rights,” adds Richard Horvitz. Switching to Zim’s voice, he screams, “GIR! What is my heartrate?”

Zim’s world may now be plentiful with Fitbits, but, happily, the animation and art in Florpus looks stunningly identical to the original series, probably because it’s being produced in much the same way.

Of the animation process, Vasquez remarks, “I think things have gotten a little slicker, but we’re kind of using the same stuff. The studio that we’re working with overseas is working on paper, so they’re pretty old school. But we’re still Photoshop. I think there’s just less paper in the studio.”

Though a comedy, Invader Zim is notorious for being a surprisingly dark and cynical kids’ show. There are no real heroes as nearly every character is some variety of self-absorbed jerk and there are quite a lot of disturbing concepts and imagery.

“Like we pulled a kid’s eyes out,” says Jhonen, recalling an episode. Nickelodeon would give them notes on “weird stuff” they never expected.

“My favorite one was we couldn’t say ‘the underworld,’” Horvitz remembers. “So this was actually one of my favorite lines because it forced us to come up with, I think, a funnier one.” Slipping into Zim’s voice, he continues, “We had to say, ‘You’re from the place beneath the overworld!’”

As for the new movie, Vasquez hasn’t run into any issues with Nickelodeon’s standards department.

Says the creator, “This one story that we’re doing wasn’t designed to be more grotesque or shocking than what the series was. It’d be interesting to try to do some of the stories that we did back then now. I’ve seen way crazier stuff on other shows. You know, there’s some pretty intense stuff on Adventure Time.”

“You should note though,” interjects Wally Wingert, voice of Almighty Tallest Red, “that the reason other shows like Adventure Time are doing those things is because the trail was blazed by this man right here. When Invader Zim came out, that was the new barometer by which you could get away with something. Up until then, all the other cartoons were relatively tame, but now you’re seeing way darker stuff than we ever did on Zim.”

We don’t want to aim our hopes too high, but, hopefully, in these turbulent modern times, Zim will swoop in and make everything better. Or, alternatively, could he make America worse?

“There is no worsening,” says Jhonen. Everyone laughs. “Zim just doesn’t make sense anymore,” Vasquez continues. “I don’t know why we’re making this. It’d be like George Orwell writing Nineteen Eighty-Four after 1984 happened. You can’t laugh at people being horrible now. It’s sort of like, ‘Oh, everyone’s horrible now.’”

More Nick: Nickelodeon Reveals First-Look Footage of All-New 'INVADER ZIM: Enter the Florpus' TV Movie at San Diego Comic-Con 2018!
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