In my notes for Norm of the North, I find this sentence: "The screaming lemming Norm pulls out of his ass has a great big smile, not sure if lazy animation or subtle joke". Having finished the whole movie, I'm still not sure - lazy animation is one of the defining characteristics of the film, and if it's a subtle joke, it's the only one in to be found. But it's also the kind of movie about which it's easy to suppose that the animators felt compelled to amuse themselves by sneaking in invisible references to anal sex.

Also, before I completely bury the lede I want to make sure you all noticed: Norm of the North has a scene where the title character pulls a screaming lemming out of his ass. So, y'know.

We should acknowledge at the onset that Norm of the North began life as a direct-to-video movie, which explains much of what there is to know about it. Not, mind you, how in the living hell it managed to snatch a theatrical release; I cannot imagine what about this project led anybody to state, "yes, we are absolutely confident that this has serious box-office potential above what we'll be able to make from DVD sales", although with a world-wide box-office take of $27 million and change, I suppose that insight paid off; given that Norm of the North couldn't possibly have cost more to produce than the producers had in their wallets right then and there, it surely must have been generated some kind of profit (the film's reported budget was $18 million, but based on the "came pre-installed with the software" quality of the animation, character modeling, and textures, I absolutely refuse to believe that's even theoretically possible).

So anyway, a direct-to-video kiddie flick that is, at any rate, the cheapest American-made animated feature to secure a theatrical release in 2016, and it got dumped into the unholy wasteland of January: you'd have to be a fool to expect anything at all from this material. Though for my part, I still didn't have my expectations sufficiently lowered. Norm of the North is a uniquely charmless motion picture, owing in no small part to the hideous, "attach a corpse to a car battery" quality of the herky-jerky animation of characters uniformly built out of the simplest possible shapes, and devoid of even the smallest hint of flexibility. But even if it weren't as ugly as a sinner's asshole, the film would still likely founder on the shoals of its world-class awful screenplay, which turns something as barbarically straightforward as "save the Arctic glaciers from land developers who want to build condos right on the ice" (this would not seem to be a terribly difficult evil plot to confound) into a confusing mash, with a hero who doesn't actually have a motivation for the first hour of a 90-minute film.

That hero being Norm (Rob Schneider), a polar bear who'd rather dance than hunt, and who has been blessed with the ability to speak to humans. This puts him in a unique position to understand what's going on when businesswoman Vera Brightly (Heather Graham) arrives with a camera crew to shoot the promotional video for the new land development planned by the corrupt yoga buff and archcapitalist Mr. Greene (Ken Jeong), owner of the punishingly ironically-named Greene Homes - he's also the film's solitary character animated in anything like a creative way, being made primarily out of rubber hose-style limbs. Fast forward a bit past the parts that I frankly couldn't quite parse, and Norm is wandering around New York, everybody thinks he's a man in an unusually persuasive bear suit, and Greene is planning to use the bear's burgeoning viral popularity as a means to force his contentious development plan through something called the Polar Council, which is apparently the U.S.-based organisation that dictates what can and cannot be done with Arctic land. And at this point I must openly wonder what the hell world this movie takes place in, because absolutely none of this makes sense; it's like screenwriters Daniel Altiere, Steven Altiere, and Malcolm T. Goldman wanted to write a movie about a polar bear who travels to New York to fight capitalism and save his homeland, but for some reason they wanted very much to use this plotline without even glancing in the direction of global climate change, and this cumbersome workaround was what they came up with in a pinch. It's all part of the general confusion as to who this movie could possibly be for: undemanding kids quick-witted enough to follow the series of narrative dead ends as Norm works for Greene while thinking he's working against Greene, and we're also apparently rooting for Vera to succeeding in pushing through Greene's deal, so that he'll write a recommendation letter for her daughter (Maya Kay) to get into a prestigious private school, despite this being at odds with Norm's own quest.

But none of it probably matters: the kids, if they were unlucky enough to stumble into this movie, have the lemmings to think about. Ah, the lemmings. This film's obvious version of Despicable Me's minions: there's three of them, and they get subjected to all kinds of cartoon slapstick that's at odds with their rigidity. They also pee. They pee very often, in places one had oughtn't pee. There's a scene of them peeing into a fish tank, with the fish only mildly alarmed, and it went on for what seemed to be at least several hours. Also, their pee was not yellow, which seems like an odd oversight; perhaps a concession to good taste, in which case too late. I apologise for putting so much energy into talking about the lemmings' urination habits; it's simply that it's impossible to talk about Norm of the North without really coming to terms about all the peeing that happens. But they do not only pee! From my notes again: "The lemmings fart so hard that they must have, like, shit themselves". Truly, this is a film that keeps on giving.

The other thing that Norm of the North is really proud to showcase is some beastly footage of Norm dancing his signature "Arctic Shake" to various generic pop songs, as director Trevor Wall sends the camera spinning around and landing in all sorts of Dutch angles. It's insipid and bland - like the dreaded dance party ending routine, only it happens four times throughout the feature (including, of cours, at the end). But at least some modicum of effort has been put into animating Norm in these moments: the only other thing that's similarly suggestive that any artistry was involved in putting this film together is a shot of Norm's fur rippling in the wind generated by a helicopter, a wildly disproportionate amount of detail for a film in which every last single human has flesh seemingly carved from marble.

Anyway, the whole thing is vile: arbitrary and confusing in all of its plot developments, unspeakably hideous, and thematically incoherent. It's almost unfair to accuse it of being 2016's worst theatrically-released animated feature: of course it is. That was obvious before 2016 even began. But recognising that this was always going to be the case, and forgiving it for having turned out so, are not at all the same thing, and Norm of the North is an invaluable case study in the very worst of what children's entertainment can be like while still remaining even minutely commercially viable.