Introduction: As a kid, I loved the Inspector Gadget cartoon show and made sure to watch it every time it was on. I can’t narrow down anything in particular that I enjoyed about it: I just thought it was funny and had a good, exciting story. As an adult, I still think the show is hilarious and I actually better appreciate its formula. The lead child character, Penny, does most of the work with help from her dog, Brain, when it comes to tracking down and stopping bad guys. But it was her uncle, the titular Inspector Gadget, who ultimately got the credit for saving the day. Penny was humble enough to never hog the spotlight as she was just happy to see justice done, so this was a surprisingly different type of kid-centric plot for its time. So, many years later when a live action adaptation was released, I knew I had to see it. After all, Inspector Gadget the cartoon show had an easy premise to work with as well as a cast of fun characters and a menacing villain. But is this late-90s cinematic remake a good homage to a fun 80s cartoon, or is it just a good idea gone horribly wrong? Be aware – some spoilers may be present throughout.
The Story: [from Rotten Tomatoes]: Based on the popular cartoon character of the same name, Inspector Gadget is an adventure comedy about a somewhat naive and inept security guard, John Brown, whose big heart is equal to his far-fetched dreams of becoming the world’s greatest police officer. However, nothing is impossible. Suddenly unexpected circumstances make him the ideal candidate for a top secret law enforcement project, and pretty scientist Dr. Brenda Bradford applies her expertise in robotics to build him into a man of many talents–and accessories. Using a vast array of grafted-on gizmos and doohickeys to bust bad guys, the often clueless Inspector Gadget must also employ his common sense to crack an especially complicated case. As he penetrates Riverton City’s darkest underworld, Inspector Gadget must save not only his good name and reputation, but also rescue the world from the nefarious Claw.
My Take: I don’t think I’m going to break any hearts or blow any minds here by stating the obvious…
Inspector Gadget is an awful movie.
Essentially, this is a flick that is painful to watch and left me pondering what it actually did right as so much of it falls flat.
But, to start, I’ll isolate a few things I
liked ambivalently tolerated. First, it makes good use of the Inspector Gadget theme song (with a modernized twist), which plays over the opening credits and is used as the main musical theme throughout the movie. This might be a small thing but I appreciated the fact it was worked in as it has an incredibly catchy beat. Second, it was fun seeing some of Gadget’s gizmos in a real-world setting. Granted, many of them are CGI (not particularly good CGI but it does try), but a few are practical effects, which was a nice touch. Gadget is also given a love interest here, which was an interesting twist as the original show never went into much detail regarding Gadget’s personal life. Lastly, I thought the idea of creating an Inspector Gadget origin story was good in theory (though not in execution). But, sadly, this movie sabotages itself by veering so far away from its source material that it becomes almost unrecognizable.
That is the biggest negative for me – this movie displays no knowledge of or seemingly any interest in the original cartoon. Granted, adaptations do make changes, but these should be in the same spirit of the original source material. By way of comparison, The Peanuts Movie was a great reboot as, while it made updated touches, it remembered what audiences loved about the Peanuts gang and stayed true to those roots. But Inspector Gadget is quite the opposite: it tries too hard to be something different and, thus, fails to grasp what fans loved about the original cartoon.
Even in little details, the film falters. Penny, the show’s behind-the-scenes heroine, isn’t blonde and doesn’t play a large role in the overall plot. Brain, who worked just as hard as Penny on the show to save the day, is a forgettable background figure. The chief evil in the show was a terrorist spy organization called M.A.D., but the likes of which are completely abandoned here. I could go on and on with similar nitpicks but these only reveal how little this movie cares about the material it’s trying to revive as it couldn’t even get minor details right.
One major problem with this movie is its casting. Here, Gadget is played by Matthew Broderick, of whom I’ve never been a fan because I feel he just delivers the same type of performance for every character he plays – dull, disinterested, and static. I’m sure Broderick is a nice guy, and if you like him as an actor, that’s cool; but for me, personally, I’ve never been wowed by anything he’s done (including Ferris Bueller’s Day Off though that’s probably his best film to date and, I’ll admit, it is pretty funny). Granted, when Broderick is called upon to play the nice guy in this movie, he’s passable and does make Gadget likable in terms of how he treats others and sticks to his own personal moral code. He never comes across as a snob or a jerk, which is always admirable. But aside from staying true to Gadget’s good guy persona, there is just so much more to Gadget as a character that is forgotten about.
On the show, Gadget was a bubbly, bumbling fellow whose goofiness was perfectly captured by the voice of Get Smart‘s Don Adams. Granted, I don’t expect an actor to copy what someone else did, but so much of what made Gadget who he was came from Adams’ signature delivery. It was quick-witted, animated, and goofy – and it worked perfectly. But absolutely nothing here in the movie seeks to preserve that in any way, much to Gadget’s detriment.
For the sake of comparison, imagine if Squidward from SpongeBob SquarePants was portrayed without his haughty, bored, nasal tone; Patrick Star without his deep, sleepy, “duh” voice; or even SpongeBob minus his signature laugh. An element of these characters would be missing as their voices reflect their personalities, and the same holds true for Inspector Gadget. Broderick’s John Brown is a generic good guy who doesn’t become interesting even after he transforms into Inspector Gadget. Instead, he retains his same bland personality and method of speaking. For example, in one scene, he assures a character that “justice will prevail,” but the lines are delivered in such an emotionless, deadpan way that it’s almost comical even though it’s not an intentionally funny moment. The background score injects more emotion into this scene than Broderick does, which becomes a pattern throughout the entire movie. In short, this take on Inspector Gadget is generic, uninspired, and hearkens nothing back to the original cartoon.
(As a sidebar, Don Adams doesn’t even get a cameo and he was alive at the time this movie was filmed. For me, it would have only made sense to bring in the man behind the character’s voice in some noticeable capacity. Instead, Adams’ contribution is reduced to a voice-over in a blink-and-miss-it credits scene. Then again, perhaps Adams was smart in steering as far away from this stinker as possible though, sadly, this would be his last voice-over work before his passing in 2005.)
The more atrocious character adaptation here is Claw (played by Rupert Everett). First, some clarification: Dr. Claw isn’t called Dr. Claw in the movie. Much like Inspector Gadget, he’s given a “real” name. Here, he’s known as Sanford Scolex and only later gives himself the moniker of Claw (“Just Claw,” he asserts, “like Madonna.”). And, again, very much unlike the cartoon, he’s not the head of M.A.D. but is a business tycoon. About the only thing even remotely interesting about this version of Claw is that, during the same accident sequence, his actions enable Brown to be turned into Gadget, and Brown’s actions enable Scolex to be outfitted with a robotic claw, hence the same event changes both characters. But that’s as intriguing as it gets.
I have no way to put this lightly – this version of Claw is appalling. Much like how Gadget’s original goofy persona is stifled, so Claw is warped beyond recognition. Again, I don’t expect an adaptation to be a clone of the original material, but when a story starts changing elements that are integral to the original, it’s a slap in fans’ faces.
In the cartoon, Dr. Claw was never actually seen. All viewers ever glimpsed of him was his spike-gloved hands as he sat in a throne-like chair with his feline companion, M.A.D. Cat, by his side. But even more striking was Dr. Claw’s voice. It was deep, low, and truly menacing. While I was never scared by Dr. Claw as a kid, I still saw him as a bad guy who wasn’t to be crossed. Compare that to this movie’s take and it’s as different as day and night. Here, Claw dispatches with any sense of mystique or menace and, instead, is clearly visible throughout the entire film and devoid of any genuinely threatening air.
For example, on the show, Dr. Claw infamously growled lines like, “I’ll get you next time, Gadget! Next time!” But here, during a showdown with Gadget, he exclaims, “I’m ready to binge! Bring on the brownies!”
My thoughts exactly.
This leads me to my second biggest issue with Inspector Gadget – it displays no understanding of its source material. Again, by way of example, one thing that made me love The Peanuts Movie was that it stayed true to the original characters, their traits, and utilized familiar elements from the comic strips and movies. The Peanuts Movie understood its audience and did its best to remain as faithful as possible to the original material while creating a new story. In contrast, Inspector Gadget changes so much from what fans recognize that it’s essentially its own franchise.
That would be fine provided it was actually any good. But even as a standalone this movie fails with a meandering plot, unfunny sight gags, occasional innuendos (when nothing of the sort was ever present in the original cartoon), and dreadful cinematography. More importantly it’s an insult to fans as it clearly doesn’t understand what made Inspector Gadget a good cartoon, and it seems like no one who made this movie took the time to watch the cartoon itself. The movie changes so much, from altering characters to changing the formula, that it’s almost unrecognizable as Gadget.
If this movie had been written differently, it could have stuck with an origins story but, instead, let Gadget be Gadget. It should have brought in Don Adams, maybe as a Gadget 1.0, to train Brown as a Gadget 2.0 as a way of passing the torch, so to speak. Dr. Claw should have remained a shadowy terrorist plotting to take over the world rather than transformed into something akin to an art gallery snob. Penny and Brain should have been lead characters, maybe in their own subplot, and actively helped Gadget save the day. All of this would have been far better than what we’re offered here, which is essentially Inspector Gadget in name only.
Interestingly enough, even some of the actors involved in this film didn’t have very high hopes for it at the time. Recently, Everett himself revealed what a quagmire the film had become, right down to the story level: […] behind the scenes lurked a panel of executives, each with their own theory and agenda. A string of writers had written version after version, each adding to our scripts on a different-colored paper, each one losing the plot a little bit more, so that by the end, or rather the beginning, they had managed between them to render the thing utterly meaningless.
(Just to note, there is a direct-to-DVD sequel, Inspector Gadget 2, but I’ve never seen it. Based on reviews, French Stewart, who portrays Gadget, stays truer to the cartoon version of his character, including trying to do his own take on Gadget’s signature voice. Likewise, the film apparently does try to give Dr. Claw an aura of menacing mystery, including never showing his face. While I’m glad to hear this second movie at least tried to remain more faithful to the cartoon, there’s not that much to the story that attracts me, so I’d probably never watch it.) In the end, Inspector Gadget would make for a fun, live-action film (and rumor has it a new cinematic reboot is in the works), but this first take is poorly-crafted hokum rather than a fun, funny, faithful homage.
Content Breakdown: Inspector Gadget was given a PG rating but my assessment of its content is as follows:
Language – Profanity usage is minor and very infrequent with only a handful of PG words.
Violence – Violence is confined to the slapstick variety and is devoid of any blood and gore. Characters are sometimes placed in perilous situations and one character is killed in a non-graphic manner. Lastly, Claw creates an evil robot that terrorizes the city in Godzilla fashion but no one ever comes to any real harm.
Sexual Material – None in terms of sexual or sensual content but there are a few innuendos. In order to help Brown get acquainted with his mechanized body, he is partnered up with a guru. During a training session, he unknowingly grabs the guru’s testicles (the act of which is never shown as we only see the guru’s shocked, pained expression). Elsewhere, Brenda innocently bends down to grab a book and Brown makes impulsive excited monkey screeches, only to promptly cover his mouth. Lastly, during a showdown with an evil robot, Gadget gets his pants pulled down to reveal his boxer shorts.
Recommended Audiences: In my opinion, I believe Inspector Gadget stacks up this way (note that just because something isn’t recommended for a certain age group doesn’t make it “bad”):
Children – Not recommended, chiefly due to the movie’s length and lack of anything that would be appealing to a young audience.
Older Children & Teens – Not really recommended, though some older children might like the sight gags and loose plot. Otherwise, there isn’t much that would appeal to teens unless they’re familiar with the original cartoon or its animated reboot on Netflix.
Young Adults & Adults – Not really recommended unless fans of the original cartoon want to check it out for nostalgia’s sake though this movie bears no resemblance to the cartoon and also lacks a good story and compelling characters.
Overall, Inspector Gadget is just painful to watch, especially as a long-time fan of the original cartoon. In theory, this could have been an easy movie to make seeing as the cartoon had enough material and fun characters to work with. Instead, the movie is utterly devoid of the charm and warm humor the original cartoon possessed. Not to mention it clearly didn’t do its homework and doesn’t even present a basic understanding of Gadget and Co. In the end, I just can’t recommend this as it’s a mess all the way around. Go, go Gadget epic fail.