Sometimes, even The A.V. Club isn’t impervious to the sexy allure of ostensible cultural garbage. Which is why there’s I Watched This On Purpose, our feature exploring the impulse to spend time with trashy-looking yet in some way irresistible entertainments, playing the long odds in hopes of a real reward. And a good time.
Cultural infamy: Depending on your demographic, the words “Hey, it’s Fred!” can inspire a variety of responses. For childless adults with little to no interest in people who qualify as “Internet personalities,” the probable reaction is “Who? Huh? What?” Parents of children who spend a lot of time on the Internet, or any grown-up who’s ever plumbed the depths of YouTube, are more likely to respond with, “Oh Jesus Christ, no, please, anything but that!” And at least 7.6 million kids in the 2- to 11-year-old demographic will respond with a shrill “Oh my gammit, it’s FRED!” That’s right, 7.6 million kids tuned in to the Nickelodeon première of Fred: The Movie on September 18—just a skoosh under the numbers the first High School Musical drew—making it the top cable-TV movie debut of 2010. The DVD release is October 5.
The fictitious creation of a bored 13-year-old in Nebraska, Fred Figglehorn is a bona fide YouTube phenomenon: Lucas Cruikshank began filming videos of himself portraying the hyperactive 6-year-old character in 2006, and started releasing them on his YouTube channel in 2008; within a year, his was the first channel to hit the 1 million subscriber milestone. Currently, he has more than 2 million subscribers, his videos have been viewed more than 600 million times, and Fred: The Movie pulled in gonzo numbers. Clearly, kids love Fred. But why? A lonely kid with an alcoholic/druggie mom, extreme anger-management issues, and a stalker-ish obsession with his neighbor, Judy, is not the stuff loveable kiddie characters are made of. But as the enduring popularity of Alvin And The Chipmunks proves, kids are suckers for funny, high-pitched voices and things that are incredibly fucking annoying. Observe:
If you got through that whole video, you are either a 9-year-old or a masochist. Cruikshank’s computer-manipulated screech is like the inverse of the Mosquito Alarm, drawing in scores of impressionable youth while driving away anyone who’s successfully navigated puberty.
Curiosity factor: Editing Videocracy every week has introduced me to the niche society of YouTube vloggers, and while a few have genuinely enjoyable gimmicks/personalities, most—Fred chief among them—are barely watchable. And yet many vloggers, Cruikshank included, make six figures a year, between their YouTube partnerships and endorsement deals, and have millions of loyal viewers. It’s tempting to wave off vloggers as the latest self-indulgent teenage fad, but it’s getting harder to deny their influence, particularly with the all-important youth demographic. As someone who spends a lot of time thinking about Internet trends, I’m equally fascinated and appalled by Fred’s success, and Fred: The Movie is an intriguing—and infuriating—artifact of that success.
The viewing experience: Here’s a good litmus test for whether you should watch any given DVD: If the menu screen inspires you to chuck your remote control through your television and run screaming to the doctor to get your tubes tied so you can never have children, it’s probably best to just eject the disc and move on with your life. And yet not only did I continue watching Fred, I did so after letting the menu sequence run on a loop for several minutes while I was off doing something else, letting my apartment fill with the sound of Fred’s screeching entreaty to “CLICK PLAY!!!” (High-pitched screeching is part and parcel of the Fred experience, so it’s best to inure yourself to it as quickly as possible.)
In the smallest of small favors, Fred’s speaking voice in the film is toned down somewhat from his YouTube videos, using actual pitch distortion rather than the basic fast-forwarded audio method Cruikshank uses. A possible explanation for this is that the Fred of the movie is 15 years old, indicating that nine years have passed since YouTube Fred was making videos. Then again, absolutely nothing else has changed to indicate such a passage of time, so the more likely explanation for Fred’s voice change is that this movie was made by professionals—really, it was; more on that later—who realized that the human ear can’t handle that sort of assault for 83 minutes.
A happy side effect of this pitch-shift is that Fred doesn’t talk quite as fast as he does in his YouTube videos, making the whole experience roughly 8 percent less manic. Which still leaves a whole lot of exhausting hyperactivity. Fred is lousy with jump-cuts, non sequiturs, and slapstick—not to mention nonstop narration by Fred, delivered in a confessional, to-the-camera style that mimics vlogging—which crowd out things like narrative, coherence, and momentum. This produces the odd sensation of being simultaneously overstimulated and bored. The movie takes a minute and a half to say what could be explained in less than five seconds, such as in this endless sequence of Fred explaining that he had a bad day at school because he was embarrassed in front of his crush, Judy (played by British pop star Pixie Lott, whose complete inability to act is camouflaged by having her sing in almost every scene).
The first half hour or so of Fred proceeds in similar fashion, functioning as a drawn-out character introduction/YouTube sketch in which Fred lays out the film’s basic premise: He wants to invite Judy over to his house so they can sing together—Fred loves singing, as he reminds us several times—but his nemesis Kevin foils him at every attempt.
Fred begins to turn into something resembling a movie, rather than an extended YouTube episode, when Fred’s mom (Siobhan Fallon, whose palpable disdain for her on-camera son seems less like acting than reacting) tells him that Judy has moved to the other side of town. Thus the movie segues into a standard Hero’s Journey, as Fred sets off to find her so he can invite her over to his house to sing… but not before kicking off act two with a Fred Tantrum to end all Fred Tantrums. (Warning: Turn your headphones/speakers waaaay down, and maybe pop a Valium, before watching this.)
Fred’s journey to Judy’s house is equal parts conventional and extremely weird. He encounters several standard character types and situations—the mystical guide, the kindly stranger, the cruel authority figure—but filtered through the movie’s ADD-addled non-sequitur machine, they become nothing more than a series of disjointed distractions formulated to give kiddie viewers more of what they want: Fred freaking out/getting hurt. But they often border on surreal, particularly when Fred’s fantasy and real worlds abruptly intersect. Take this partial sequence—yes, it’s even longer in the movie—where Fred encounters his other next-door neighbor, Bertha (played by iCarly’s Jennette McCurdy, doing her best Aubrey Plaza impersonation), at the local pool.
Or this even more bizarre bit where Fred gets lost in the woods and encounters a talking deer, which gives him a quick grammar lesson:
Sequences like these somewhat distort the comedic M.O. of Fred: The Movie. That deer clip in particular is straddling the line between kiddie movie and Tim & Eric sketch. When you factor in that Fred was written by David A. Goodman—a longtime Family Guy writer/executive producer who also wrote the excellent “Where No Fan Has Gone Before” episode of Futurama—it becomes apparent that there’s a slightly more developed comedic philosophy at work in Fred than just “scream, fall down, scream some more.” (It also explains the predilection for the sort of cutaways Family Guy favors.) Of course, all the screaming and falling down muddies that philosophy… after all, this movie was executive-produced by Brian Robbins, whose recent contributions to cinema have included Norbit and Wild Hogs. It’s too kind to say there’s anything in Fred that will entertain the parents of its intended audience; but there is a recognizable attempt to give them something other than migraine-fodder. (It’s also pretty nice to look at—minus Cruikshank’s grimacing mug—thanks to director Clay Wiener, whose television-commercial background is evident in the film’s super-sharp focus and saturated colors.)
Fred’s scattered tone is sent screaming off in yet another direction in the movie’s final third, which, believe it or not, turns into a broad commentary on the nature of YouTube celebrity. After reaching Judy’s house, only to discover she’s having a big party that he wasn’t invited to, Fred freaks right the fuck out—as he is wont to do—and vomits all over her in front of an audience of camera-phones. Within hours the video is on “BlueTube” racking up hits, prompting Fred to ask, “Why do people even watch other people on YouTube?” That would be enough of a wink-nudge to earn Fred a “meta” distinction, but the movie’s conclusion takes it even further. Seeking revenge for his humiliation, Fred decides to have a party to which no one is invited—going so far as to personally “dis-invite” everyone—except for Bertha, who tells him she didn’t think the video was funny. In a montage that goes on so long, it needs two separate songs, the two of them team up to film a fake rager, complete with confetti, puppet stand-ins, and Fred’s passed-out mom covering DJ duties.
Once edited together, the final video of the “party”—which is played out in yet another overlong montage sequence—becomes a huge hit, and Fred and Bertha become the two coolest kids in school. Judy shows up on Fred’s stoop wearing 5-inch fuck-me heels and asks him to “sing” with her—we’re all clear on the euphemistic nature of “sing” at this point, right?—and despite logic and basic storytelling convention dictating that he should tell her to piss off and hang out with Bertha, who has proven to be an actual friend, he gleefully accepts and the movie abruptly ends.
The slightly cynical moral of Fred—which seems to be, “No matter how annoying you are, the magic of YouTube can turn you into a popular kid who abandons his loyal friend for the hot chick”—is just another strike against its kid-movie credentials. A bevy of poop jokes, a hateful alcoholic mother who’s never rehabilitated/redeemed, tons of consequence-free violence, and some light racism—Fred thinks a Spanish-speaking man is a spaceman; Fred digs a hole into the backyard of his Asian neighbors and assumes he’s dug to China—don’t do much to endear it further. I don’t have kids, but if I did, I would keep them far away from Fred. And not just to save myself a migraine, either.
How much of the experience wasn’t a total waste of time? Assuming you’re an adult, it really boils down to your tolerance for Fred’s voice. If you can get past it, the sporadic forays into out-and-out weirdness might give you enjoyment levels of anywhere from 10 to 15 percent, depending on the number of mind-altering substances currently in your bloodstream.