Thursday, 20 January 2011

South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut

34. Sotuh Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut (1999)
Dir: Trey Parker


Attempts to turn adult animated series into feature length productions have rarely paid off. 2007's long awaited 'The Simpson's Movie' was enjoyable but unspectacular and failed to recapture the magic of the show at its peak, before its disasterous nosedive after its tenth season. Mike Judge's 'Beavis and Butt-head Do America' (1999) was a more successful transition, its modest achievements probably best summed up by Variety's review at the time: "The good news is 'Beavis and Butt-head Do America' doesn't suck. The bad news is it doesn't rule, either.' Judge's other, constantly underrated masterpiece, 'King of the Hill' (1997-2010) never made the transition to a full length feature, while Matt Groening's other masterpiece, 'Futurama' (1999- ) seems like the ideal candidate for the big screen but has only thus far been converted into a series of disappointing, small-screen bound TV movies. And future plans for a 'Family Guy' film make me wonder how a series known for its relentless gags over any kind of coherent plotting or emotionally consistent characters can possibly hope to sustain a feature length runtime.

It fell, then, to Trey Parker and Matt Stone's classic series 'South Park' (1997- ) to buck the trend. Not only did the series big screen equivalent, 'South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut', top anything the duo had achieved previously, it set the series on the road to becoming the most vital, intelligent, relevant satire of recent times. By the time of 'South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut', the 'South Park' TV series was already a phenomenon after just three series. Although these initial series of the show did include several memorable satirical swipes, at this stage its vulgarity, outrageousness and well-publicised gimmicks (the weekly killing off of hapless, permanently hooded Kenny, the romance-triggered vomiting of literally lovesick Stan) tended to be the focus. What 'South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut' did was tighten up the social commentary and make it the main focus, retaining the show's recognisable style but upping the stakes considerably. The result was a monumentally smart movie which managed to satirize the controversy surrounding itself before it had even been released.

'South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut's other major achievement was to prove to Trey Parker and Matt Stone exactly what they were capable of. It transformed their little, occasionally satirical show into America's sharpest contemporary social mirror. The series that followed the release of the film became progressively more pointed, intelligent and vicious, mercilessly mauling targets from conservative bigotry to liberal ineffectuality, from religious hypocrisy to the crassness of the media. Racism, sexism and homophobia all got taken to task. 'South Park' had no political alliances. Anything was a target so long as Parker and Stone deemed it worthy. They didn't always get it right (the episode 'Mr. Garrison's Fancy New Vagina' is particularly dreadful, putting forth a feeble argument that sex change operations are akin to a man turning himself into another species, aligning the show with the sort of specious reasoning and bigotry it so often exposes) but their misfires were few and far between. In the process of tackling the big issues, Parker and Stone always stayed true to their characters, who have all grown and developed throughout the show, providing viewers with the essential emotional grounding that so much satire lacks.

'South Park' has its detractors. There are those who just don't really like its brand of no-holds-barred, biting satire which invariably makes its point by pushing a metaphorical situation to its very extremes. Of course, this approach is not for everyone but too often 'South Park's opponents are those who either totally misunderstand the show, taking it at face value as a crude, juvenile cartoon rather than reading between the lines to look for its message (and there nearly always is one), or those who refuse to even listen to the opinion that it could be more than what they have taken it to be, usually an impression botched together from seeing snippets of scenes completely out of context, or else just received information from other morally outraged bigots. Though it can be insensitive, 'South Park' is ultimately a humane show that aims to make the world better by highlighting its follies and how utterly ridiculous each and every one of us has the capacity to be. Episodes like 'With Apologies to Jesse Jackson', in which the word "nigger" is repeated over and over to make a staunchly anti-racist point, are frequently described as "Non-PC" when in fact they are extremely politically correct in the point they are making through the use and implied condemnation of offensive behaviour.

'South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut' is a searing indictment of censorship, examining the moral outrage that fictional series 'The Terrence and Phillip Show' whips up in the hot-headed adults of a small Colorado town. Parker and Stone created 'The Terrence and Phillip' show as a surrogate for 'South Park' itself, after one critic said their show was "nothing but fart jokes and bad animation." In the 'South Park' episode 'Death', the series, which consists of two flappy-headed Canadians repeatedly farting on each other, was introduced as a favourite of the children of South Park, much to the consternation of their parents. Park and Stone use the episode 'Death' as their jumping off point for 'South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut', only this time Terrence and Phillip have made the transition to the big screen, where they can use far worse profanity than they could on television without getting bleeped (sounds familiar yet?!). When this influences the children of South Park to imitate them, misguided moral guardian Sheila Broflovski leads the other parents in a full scale war between America and Canada and the arrest and sentencing to death of Terrance and Phillip. Meanwhile, in Hell, Satan and his abusive lover Saddam Hussein plan an uprising which will be made possible by the spilling of innocent blood on foreign soil, fulfilling an ancient prophesy. It's up to the boys to stop this happening.

Parker and Stone's masterstroke was their idea to make 'South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut' a musical. They had already proven themselves as excellent songwriters in their live-action movie debut, Troma Entertainment's 'Cannibal: The Musical' (1993), as well as with their number one hit song 'Chocolate Salty Balls', which gave soul legend Isaac Hayes his first hit in years, albeit in character as South Park's love god and cafeteria employee Chef! The songs Parker and Stone wrote for 'South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut' (with the assistance of Mark Shaiman and James Hetfield) surpass all of their previous work, making it song-for-song one of the most memorable and witty musical movies in history. Although its impact has been lessened by the subsequent loosening up of censorship in the 'South Park' TV series, the early appearance of a song called 'Uncle Fucka', in which Terrance and Phillip repeatedly accuse each other of incestuous union with their uncles, utilising the word "fuck" 31 times in the process, was a genuine shock first time round. Also shocking was just how great the song itself was. True to the depiction in the film, audiences really did leave the cinema singing it!

But 'South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut' has so much more to offer musically than this crude little ditty. There's "It's Easy, MMMKay", in which school counsellor Mr. Mackey attempts to re-program the children not to swear through the oft-used political tool of fear filtered through a show-tune. There's the extraordinarily catchy 'What Would Brian Boitano Do', in which the boys whip up inspiration by idolising ice-skater Brian Boitano to the point of attributing the pyramids to him and, of course, there's the Oscar nominated (!) 'Blame Canada', which encapsulates the film's main message in its final line, sung by the parents of America, "We must blame them and cause a fuss before somebody thinks of blaming us". Each musical number is impressively mounted and brilliantly executed, bulking up the already sturdy plot.

'South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut' makes great use of all its characters. Kenny, traditonally killed off in every episode (a gimmick which was later phased out) is quickly dispensed with early on and spends the rest of the film in Hell, counselling Satan through his relationship problems with Saddam (who is portrayed by a real cut-out of Hussein's face, which flaps open and closed wildly) and trying to contact his living friends to warn them about the uprising. Stan spends the film trying to find out what a clittoris is, as he's heard this will help him make his girlfriend Wendy like him. Kyle struggles to face up to his fear of his mother, weighing up the pros and cons of saving the world by admitting he lied to her, while Cartman (the show's most famous character, an overweight, spoiled and, in subsequent series, iredeemably evil 8 year old boy) becomes the subject of a 'Clockwork Orange'-esque experimental treatment which will subject him to an electric shock every time he swears. All these elements create amusing asides in the boys' central quest of saving the world from their parents' bull-headed stupidity.

Despite the series going on to become evermore outrageous, cutting, intelligent and downright brilliant, 'South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut' still stands up as well as ever. This is despite the fact that many of the best and most popular characters were yet to be introduced or given anything significant to do. These characters include the likes of Token, the school's only black child; Timmy and Jimmy, two disabled children who, despite Network concerns upon their initial appearances, have gone on to become incredibly popular among the disabled community who have responded positively to finally being included in the joke rather than patronised and ignored; and my own personal favourite, the disarmingly sweet Butters who is probably the series most well-rounded character. All are absent, at the expense of characters who have since been marginalised, such as mentally-questionable schoolteacher Mr. Garrison and his puppet pal Mr. Hat, and Chef, whose conscription into an army mission known as "Operation Get Behind the Darkies" is another example, along with the townsfolks consistent racism towards Candians, of 'South Park's deft use of apparently politically-incorrect material to make a staunchly politically correct point.

Aside from its clever plotting, its strong characterisations, its brutal satire, its skillfully composed musical numbers and its subtle balance of crude production values and epic aspirations, 'South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut' is very, very, VERY funny! It's jokes range from smart social criticism to crude gags about bodily functions so, if you don't like one of these comedy types, the other one is always on hand. And if, like me, you're a fan of both then you're in for a treat. Parker and Stone also use 'South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut' to wrap up many of the show's gimmicks that were, by this point, becoming tired. This is one of the last times you'll see Stan throw up on Wendy, Kenny's tendency towards dying phased out a couple of series after the film in the hilariously pseudo-serious episode 'Kenny Dies', and, in a much publicised moment, Kenny's permanently hidden face is revealed, although the script plays it down and presents it as a simple, sweet moment with no big twists or revelations. His first ever non-muffled words are spoke by none of than Mike Judge, creator of 'Beavis and Butt-Head' and 'King of the Hill', and seen as something of a mentor by Parker and Stone. Other celebrity voices in the film include long term fan George Clooney, Minnie Driver and Eric idle.

The brilliance of 'South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut' did not go unacknowledged and it remains a popular and admired film but few seem willing to call it a classic. I, however, think it deserves that tag and would include it among lists of my favourite animated movies, my favourite musicals, my favourtie comedies and, hell, even just flat out favourite films (though that list is a large and diverse one). 'South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut' represents a landmark moment for one of the greatest TV shows of all time and it played a huge part in influencing 'South Park' to transcend its humble beginnings and become such an important programme.

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