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JibJabs are cute, but not pointed enough to offend

Chicago Tribune

In lampooning a sitting president chosen, apparently, by half of the Americans who cared enough to vote, the cartoonists at JibJab take on a challenging task.

Making fun of the year George W. Bush had in “2-0-5" -- the new JibJab video’s title, derived from the lead character’s name for the current 12 months -- isn’t difficult.

Enough went wrong for the president this year to fuel an entire Capitol Steps revue, not just a two-minute Internet video. But in “This Land” and “Good to Be in D.C.,” the musical parody cartoons that made brothers Gregg and Evan Spiridellis and their company kings of viral video, JibJab was mocking Bush, Democratic rival John Kerry and Washington, D.C., culture. They could hit hard because they were hitting all.

With “2-0-5,” the focus is squarely on the president, who begins at a news conference and walks and sings, grinning vacuously, across a cartoon tableaux including the Gaza Strip, the Iraqi insurgency and Hurricane Katrina. In such a scenario, the challenge for a company that wants its streaming video to still flow into the mainstream is to satisfy the Bush-loathers without entirely offending the Bush-lovers.

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At remaining close to the center of the line, the video succeeds. At visual inventiveness, providing a series of arresting, amusing and telling images, it succeeds again, beginning with North Korean strongman Kim Jong Il in a boy’s bedroom, playing with missiles like toys.

At being sharp comedy, though, it’s less of a winner. “2-0-5" throws a punch or two, but the boxing gloves remain on, wrapped in foam.

While the lyrics, mostly sung by the Bush character to a melding of “Auld Lang Syne” and “Turkey in the Straw,” are typically nimble and clever, most of what they present is value-neutral:

Oh the deficit’s a-risin’ /

Half of Europe hates my guts /

And industrial America is going bankrupt

There is a great sense of urgency /

We’ve got to squash the insurgency

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My approval rating’s in a dive /

Hope it’s not another year like 2-0-5

To be sure, having him miss a zero in the year’s name is a barb, but it’s the same dim-intellect joke that Bush is smart enough to make about himself. (Or that is made by Jay Leno, whose “Tonight Show” once again gave JibJab a national forum for its debut, before the video became available for free viewings and $1.99 downloads at www.jibjab.com and www.msn.com.)

There’s a very subtle poke at Bush’s unimpressive performance in the first presidential debate against Kerry, during the 2004 election, when the character sings, “from pirates in Somalia to that nut job in Iran, it’s hard to rule the free world, but I’m doin’ the best I can.” But for people who don’t remember the debate, where the difficulty of the job and the sincerity of his effort were the essence of Bush’s argument, the line plays as sympathetic to his plight.

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“2-0-5" packs more punch, to be sure, in the imagery, probably on the theory that a pointed picture is less likely to be fully processed by its viewer, or to be held against the Spiridellis. Bush sings that folks needn’t worry about Alaska, and the picture is of a pipeline leaking oil onto a polar bear. He mentions Katrina and is seen sitting atop the roof of a flood-surrounded New Orleans house.

These, and others, provide chuckles as they flit rapidly by with a reaction shot of the crowd looking at him. Bush simply glides on through this video, a little bit charming in his cartoon persona. He is allowed to detail events that took place on his watch, but he is never stuck with responsibility for unsuccessful, incomplete or misguided responses to those events.

Last time out, releasing “Big Box Mart” in October, JibJab achieved satire by presenting Wal-Mart (under a pseudonym) as a company that has sacrificed American jobs for low prices and, moreover, American workers as being all too complicit in the bargain. This time, the video is technically accomplished and still a joy to watch, but rather than satirical, it’s merely cute.

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Steve Johnson is the Internet critic at the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune company.


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