When I first heard about this film I almost couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the duo behind South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut, were making a movie about America’s role as police force to a world terrorized by, well, terror…and they would make it using not animation, not actors, but…marionettes? I figured it had to be a joke, and they were just punking us all. Believe me, they weren’t.
Team America: World Police may be the most subversively intelligent political satire that I have seen since…well…Dr. Strangelove. Part of me is almost embarrassed to make that comparison, but it is nonetheless valid. Strangelove is an undisputed masterpiece, and when viewed today it is very easy to marvel in a clinical way at how groundbreaking, offensive, daring, and dangerous it would have been to the politically naive Ward Cleavers of that day. However, it is not the least bit controversial, offensive, or groundbreaking to the jaded audiences of today, who have seen it all. But we haven’t seen it all, and Team America proves it.
Just as Strangelove shocked the sensibilities of the America of its day, Team America will shock you, if you go see it. And I highly recommend that you do, but leave the kiddies at home (but take the later teens, who might actually learn something amid all the cursing, stereotypes, violence, and puppet sex). In today’s political era where every supposed “news” outlet proudly wears its affiliations on its sleeve (FOX is conservative/Republican, CNN is liberal/Democrat, etc), it’s nice to experience balanced political commentary, which is exactly what Team America is, if you have an open mind.
Parker and Stone attack the hegemonic hubris of America-as-latter-day-Roman-Empire, with our government’s proclivity of presuming to tell the rest of the world how to run its business (to our advantage, of course). But they also attack the rise of celebrity/activists, who presume to tell world leaders how to run the world, presumably using the insight they gleaned from scripts someone else wrote but that they nobly memorized (or read from cue cards).
In both cases, Team America hits the bull’s-eye with laserlike accuracy. One might think that if Parker and Stone are smart enough to see North Korea as a greater threat to world security than Middle-Eastern terrorism that the US government would be, too, but one would be wrong. One might think that celebrities would understand that the even though people listen to and report what they say, their opinions are no more valid or informed than anybody else’s, but one would, again, be wrong. One might think that there are no great truths to be learned by watching a drunken marionette collapse in a pool of his own vomit, but one would, again, be wrong.
The film itself is painfully funny, in that I laughed so hard that it hurt. It’s almost impossible to offend me with creative works, but Team America had me covering my eyes (but peeking through my fingers) more than once. I wasn’t offended in the “morally outraged” sense, but in the “I don’t think I’m old enough to see this” sense (I’m 43).
And the songs…my god, the songs. If you couldn’t understand how Trey Parker’s song Blame Canada from the South Park movie got nominated for an Academy Award (look it up), then prepare for more surprises. I doubt any of the songs from Team America will be nominated, but that’s only because they all contain curse words (and bad ones). Well, and the film skewers Hollywood so deftly that I doubt Hollywood would choose to reward them for it. But the songs may be the best part of the film.
Kim Jong Il’s (singing and spoken voice by Trey Parker) rendition of “I’m So Lonely” is a Cole Porter-esque ballad about the loneliness and misunderstanding that only a ruthless dictator can understand (which is why he’s so lonely). The patriotic, country twang of “Freedom Isn’t Free” probably makes Tobey Keith wish it were his song, because it’s played so straight that it could be a New Country hit, which make its ridiculousness even funnier. And the Team America theme song is pretty funny itself, but that’s really all I can say about it because I can’t even mention the title in this column. And do yourself a favor and stay through the end credits.
Oh, and to top it all off the film is also a dead-on spoof of testosterone-charged, Bruckheimer-esque, mindless action films. And if you thought it would be impossible to have marionettes perform complicated martial arts moves, well, you’d be right. But the aimless flailing and twitching that is used instead is HILARIOUS.
Speaking of the marionettes, intentionally lame puppet-fu notwithstanding, the puppets actually do some great acting. Their surprisingly flexible faces are able to emote, and the masterful string pulling allows them to demonstrate surprisingly convincing body language. Also, I didn’t notice any cheats, and all puppet movement seemed to actually be traditional puppet string pulling. They even left in some mistakes and awkward movements, perhaps because of the tight editing schedule, perhaps just to prove that it was all pure puppetry. The sets are also quite ornate, and the level of detail is overwhelming, if you can manage to tear your eyes away from the main action and peruse the background.
All in all this is an amazing and funny film. I think that Parker and Stone are making it clear that they actually have cogent points to make, but that they are smart enough to know that the first step in being heard is to put butts in the seats. They do this with humor and prurience, but those are not the points of their work. However, many, many (many, many, many, many, many) people are unable to see past the surface of their works and see the actual messages.
My suggestion is to treat their films like you would a piece of sausage. If you were to go through the bits and pieces of sausage and actually identify all the parts that make up the whole, I’m sure you would be disgusted (lips, hooves, and assholes, anyone?). However, if you take a good piece of sausage as a whole, and just savor the flavor of ALL the ingredients, it usually tastes pretty good. Even the disgusting parts add to the delicious flavor. Just like in Team America: World Police.