Invader Zim is easily one of the most memorable cartoons of its time. Its sharp, gritty, style and dark humor set it apart from a lot of other children’s programming, and it quickly gained a wide, but also extremely loyal fanbase. It only makes sense that the show would be revived, or at the very least that it would get some sort of recognition in the current era of remakes and reboots. Invader Zim: Enter the Florpus was recently released on Netflix, and I think it aired on Nickelodeon too, but as a millennial I haven’t watched anything on cable in over five years now.
To put this review in some context, I recently found out that my roommate’s girlfriend hadn’t ever seen Invader Zim, so the three of us binged the whole show on Hulu, finishing up about four days before the movie came out. Because of this, when we watched Enter the Florpus we couldn’t help but notice everything that was different.
The most obvious things were of course the art and some of the characters’ designs. Gaz was wearing a blue shirt with a pixel skull on it, Professor Membrane was less skinny and menacing, and in place of the usual sharp, gritty outlines, everything seemed a lot rounder and the colors were generally brighter (at least when they pertained to the human characters). There were other things I noticed though, that went a bit deeper than the art style. Invader Zim is taking a completely different direction than what I felt it had been doing in its old TV series.
When watching Invader Zim on Hulu, one thing that I really noticed and appreciated was the depiction Vasquez (The show’s creator) gives of Earth. It’s dark, gritty, and has sinister undertones. In one episode, as Dib chases Zim across the rooftops of cars parked in traffic, an ice cream truck is playing a recording of a hypnotic chant about ice cream. The teacher’s lessons in Dib and Zim’s class are constantly revolving around hopelessness and meaninglessness. The sky is usually dark, the buildings are dirty, the people are unreasonable and don’t often make a lot of sense. My interpretation of this was that this stylistic choice was because the show was being told from Zim’s perspective. Even though there are plenty of episodes and scenes where he isn’t present, the world looks the way that it does because Zim is foreign to it, and this is his show. Many of the human characters in the TV series weren’t made to be relatable. Their relationships don’t make a lot of sense, and the whole reasoning behind this is that Irkens don’t share those relationships or mentalities, so they would seem strange and alien to an Irken.
This is called Cognitive Estrangement, and it’s the bread and butter of a lot of Scifi. It relies on using an outsider’s perspective to show us how weird some institutions that we take for granted are, and the Invader Zim TV series was an expert at it, in my opinion. In “Voting of the Doomed” for example, the school holds an election after the former student-body president speaks out about the bathrooms and is removed from office. What follows is an election in which Zim tries to become the new student-body president because he thinks it will be a steppingstone to world domination. What he and Dib actual find out is that the school is not run by the student body president, but by a group of mysterious adults. In the real world, this is a totally normal practice, most kids know that their student body president doesn’t actually hold any real power, but in the eyes of an alien, it would be on par to finding out that some shadow organization runs the school, which is exactly how the scene is portrayed in the show. Things like this are present throughout the entire series. Professor Membrane’s talks with Gaz and Dib are meant to estrange us to family relationships, the Christmas special, “The Most Horrible X-Mas Ever” estranges the premise of religion, and Gaz’s obsession with video games and Pizza is meant to estrange us to consumerism.
Enter the Florpus did not have this focus on Cognitive Estrangement, and I think this is largely because it wasn’t setting out to complete the work that the TV series started. To be clear, I really liked Enter the Florpus. I like the new direction that the franchise is taking with it, because it’s what I always wanted TV shows to do when I was a kid, and it’s something that they’ve only recently started doing, which is leaning harder towards long-form narrative.
When Invader Zim first got popular in the early 2000’s, most TV shows, especially those targeted towards kids, were strictly episodic. You could watch them in any order, and only rarely would they reference other episodes. Now, to be fair, Invader Zim was already toying around with a larger, over-arching narrative, largely focused around Tak’s ship and Dib’s quest to repair it, but the show itself was still adhering to the old standards of television writing. There was no character development, there was no real character depth, there was no urgency or promise of victory for any one character.
Invader Zim: Enter the Florpus starts off with one of the most memorable intros I’ve ever seen. Using highly stylized depictions of the characters, Dib uses voice over narration to recount the premise of the TV series. The art style is incredible and the whole intro immediately grabbed my attention. Afterwards though, I realized that intro was doing a lot for the film. First, as I’ve already mentioned, it was setting up the plot of the TV series for anyone who hadn’t watched it, but second, it was offering this entire sequence in a different art form because the art direction in the movie was going to be different from what it had been in the show. The character designs in the intro are cool, but they’re also so different that when the Intro is over, and the first scene comes onto the screen, you say, “Okay, that’s closer to what I remember.” Because the art direction is different, but it’s still recognizably Invader Zim.
The biggest difference that we recognized right off the bat was that the characters in the movie suddenly felt like they had more weight to them, and they were far more relatable than they had been in the TV series. In the film’s intro, Dib at one point says, “my name is Dib Membrane…” and everyone in my living room shared a moment of “Wait what??” where we realized Dib had never said his last name before, and of course it would be Membrane, but the show never acknowledged this, and the world it had set up was so alien that in it we thought it was weird to find something so relatable in these characters as a last name. But it didn’t end there, because the first scene in the film is a conversation between Professor Membrane and Gaz about Dib. I liked this scene in particular because there’s a similar scene in the TV series that perfectly contrasts with this one to illustrate my point about the cognitive estrangement that I mentioned earlier.
In the TV series, Gaz and her dad are talking about what to do about Dib and his perceived insanity, and Professor Membrane simply suggests Gaz listen to her brother more because “maybe that will make him less insane.” To which Gaz replies that she doesn’t want to because “The sound of Dib’s voice fills me with an uncontrollable rage!” This is peak 90’s Invader Zim because it shows us such a weird family dynamic that it’s hard to relate to either end of this conversation. In the film however, Professor Membrane and Gaz are far more eloquent. He explains the situation to Gaz using an analogy that she can understand, and we as the audience can clearly see that he is a loving father trying his best.
This opening scene clearly illustrates that the characters are nothing like they were in the show, and they have a level of depth and interiority that was completely absent in the 90’s. Dib just wants to make his father proud, Gaz picks on Dib because she knows he can take it, and Professor Membrane is a loving and hard-working father. This is a huge departure from the TV series, but it’s actually one that I’m really excited about. Adding overarching narrative and focusing on character development takes a lot more effort than just “wacky scenario of the week” and it also allows for deeper involvement as a viewer. I feel like I can look closely at these characters now and understand their motivations, and better get to know their lore.
From what I’ve seen so far, most of the Invader Zim fandom are pretty happy with Enter the Florpus, and are pretty excited at the possibility of the show’s revival. I’m right there with them. I think it’s great that this older show is getting reworked with more attention, and I feel like it was able to be brought up to modern storytelling practices pretty flawlessly. It’s not very often that you can reboot a show this beloved with little-to-no backlash, so clearly the show’s creators must be doing something right.