Members of the Empire of Evil take note: Judge Bill Gibron proclaims Team America: World Police one badass puppet comedy. And it's got each and every one of you in its satiric sights.
Putting the "F" back into Freedom!
Though it's been said before, it really bears repeating: puppets just plain rule! Not only in the domain of the daytime kids show, or on late night laugh fests, but frankly anything is better when you put a puppet into its parameters. Similar to the theory that any scene—dramatic, horrific, pornographic—is a crack-up when given the Benny Hill treatment ("Yakety Sax" playing in the background as the action is sped-up to silent movie levels), when you do things with marionettes and dummies, the humor is just heavenly.
Don't believe it? Let's try this test: let's say a couple of drunken co-workers are standing outside a dive bar, having tied one on after a particularly grueling day at the office. And, for the sake of argument, let's say that one of the men is taking a whiz. And just to spice things up, a cop car rolls by, the urinator gets freaked out, rears back, and sprays his pal right across the front of his pants. Hilarious, right? A total laugh riot.
Now, imagine it with puppets. See? The thought of a couple of dolls throwing piss on each other is just too friggin' comical. This is the anarchic ace up the sleeve of every member of the marionette menagerie. Stick them in any situation, and the giggles just grow and grow. Trey Parker and Matt Stone understood this concept all too well. They decided to take a page out of that tainted Thunderbirds Bible of entertainment and make a big budget action epic where all the performers are wooden toys on strings. The result is Team America: World Police, and in typical muppet fashion, it's a certified Pinocchio of a picture. And because it is the work of the most talented and twisted minds in modern comedy, it is also one of the funniest films in years.
Facts of the Case
Team America are indeed the world's police. Whenever crime rears its ugly, misshapen head anywhere on the planet, this collection of skilled law enforcers kick ass and blow stuff up. With the main goal of stopping terrorism, but with an additional ancillary charge of spreading the USA-OK version of justice to every culture, Chris, Joe, Lisa, and Sarah work to keep the big blue marble safe from fanatical fundamentalism. In conjunction with Spottswoode, their suave organization leader and I.N.T.E.L.L.I.G.E.N.C.E, their super computer, Team America is the darling of all nations everywhere—everywhere except certain hotbeds of anti-American aggression—like Hollywood.
When one of the troops is lost during an offensive on Paris, Team America searches for a viable replacement. Spottswoode finds just what he needs in Gary, a rising star of Broadway musicals. Seems Team America needs someone who can infiltrate the terrorist networks. Better yet, their spy has to be a damn fine actor. And Gary is indeed a grand thespian. When it turns out that North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il, not merely some typical Middle Eastern terrorist, is plotting to destroy the world, the Team must change tactics. Worse yet, Gary must battle one of his own, as the devious dictator has recruited the thickheaded Hollywood elite to fight for his side.
Many of us middle-aged fogies have nightmares because of them. Whether your first experience was thanks to the actual string showing mannerisms of Gerry Anderson's Supermarionation, or during a particularly peculiar assembly at your grade school, puppets can be a very disturbing, very perverse pleasure. It is that oddest of art forms, one that tries to recreate reality out of wood and glue, felt and fine fish line. Similar to animation in its ability to contort truth into a very cartoony, colorful concept, there is just something semi-magical about the universe created by puppeteers. The "performers" are tactile and yet somehow ethereal, capturing the idea of reality without actually imitating it.
Now imagine what would happen if you tossed in a few scatological sex jokes, lots of foul language, and a rousing sense of adventure. Frankly, you would have the makings of some manner of misguided epic. That, indeed, is what Team America: World Police is—a Hollywood action film outfitted with a genuine Gepetto sense of the surreal.
Leave it to South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone to dig up this lost bit of levity and reinvent it as biting social commentary. Even though it may not look like it from the ads or images, Team America: World Police is, perhaps, the best all-around satire to come out of a major studio since Network. Parker and Stone have decided to take the concept of puppets, just like they did the construction paper cutouts of their animated Colorado cartoon characters, and place them in a cinematic setting that has more to say about the perplexing world around them than the nightly news.
Indeed, this is a duo that just loves to bite the hand that feeds them, taking on everyone from the government, to Hollywood, to the very fanbase that would support their subversive works. This perverted pair is indeed having fun with the idea of marionettes as heroes, but they also want to deflate egos, undermine dogma, and send-up the protectionist policies of the US. The title says it all. The pair wishes to question the notion that, somehow, the rest of the world needs America to act as its international street beat cop.
The sardonic targets here are varied, and viciously mounted. When you think about it, there is perhaps no better way of tackling the overblown Bruckheimer and Bay world of blockbuster action motion picture making than by turning it over to toys. As devised, these types of films are similar in structure to those games of war you played as a child, little action figures falling over each other in mock muck-ups as your secret supply of M-80s awaits in the corner of the sandbox, anticipating your explosive finale. Parker and Stone keep that idea front and center in Team America, attempting to make the puppet-based pyrotechnics as overblown and outlandish as if they came fully formed from a wide-open juvenilia's imagination-filled mind.
A similar sentiment occurs in all the fight scenes, with their carefully choreographed moves and mannerisms becoming sublimely ridiculous when acted out by unwieldy, mostly inanimate "actors." Just on this level of lampoon alone, Team America is a miracle. But the fact that there are political and show business undercurrents cascading through the storyline adds that delicious dimension that makes Parker and Stone true geniuses.
As they do with most hateable dictators, the South Park pair turn North Korea's egomaniacal midget Kim Jong-Il into a total Asian stereotype, complete with Elmer Fudd pronunciation, bad eyewear, and pidgin English phraseology. Like Saddam Hussein in South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, Kim Jong-Il is being ridiculed for not only what he stands for, but how he is viewed by the rest of the world. He is seen as the ultimate terrorist as well as the supreme leftist lynchpin, someone capable of luring the members tree-hugging Hollywood community into selling their souls for a chance at personal propaganda glory.
The fact that Parker and Stone take on the A-list community, completely ripping apart the activist activities of Martin Sheen, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, and Alec Baldwin indicates that, in their world, celebrity is just as evil as a dictatorship. It provides people without any notable educational background the chance to grab their own piece of the bully pulpit and pontificate aimlessly. The puppet versions of these toxic do-gooders aren't caricatures, though they are cleverly crafted to look like them in the film. In reality, they are meant to reflect the inner dynamic, the delusional belief that what they say and think is actually important.
Oddly absent—and noted by several who took the film to task for it—is the US government itself. We don't get any GW clones here, no Dick Chaney dolls fighting for their cardiac life (obviously Parker and Stone shot that wad with That's My Bush!). Instead, Parker and Stone infuse all the right wing "shoot first and never question it later" hand-wringing of the war-mongering Republican within the bland, basic exterior of the Team America squad members themselves. Their chaotic collateral damage mentality, meshed with a Muslim/Middle East bias, is a direct assault on a foreign policy that places its faith in archetypes and icons, not common sense and consideration.
Indeed, a lot of our own knee-jerk reaction to seeing marionette followers of Mohammed bite the dust comes from this basic brainwashing. Parker and Stone want to make sure that Team America is viewed as both hero and villain, right and wrong, to show how confusing our current national position really is. On one hand, we are off to battle a so-called empire of evil. But just don't mess up our dependency on their oil, or the cheapness of their made-in-Hong Kong products.
Beyond all the big picture bravado, it demands noting that Team America is a musical, and a damn fine one at that. While not a song and dance showcase in the traditional sense, Parker is again aided by Hollywood and Broadway shaman Mark Shaiman to create some classic comic melodies. While most of the attention is on the ubiquitous Team America theme (a rousing rocker with the flawless lyrical "America—F*ck Yeah!" as its main mantra), there are several soon to be timeless classics interspersed among the soundtrack. They include the descriptive motion picture paean "Montage" (a direct lift from a SP episode), the haunting love song "The End of an Act" (with the classic chorus "Pearl Harbor sucked…and I miss you"), and Kim Jong-Il's lament to isolation, "I'm So Ronery." But the hilarious highlight has to be the stage spoof of Rent entitled Lease, featuring the show-stopping send-up "Everyone has AIDS." If he is never noted for another contribution to popular culture, Trey Parker is one of the best comic songwriters of the last 50 years, and as he proved with the South Park film, his magnificent movie music adds the proper pointed commentary to what is already a project jam-packed with confrontational goodness.
Even without all the politics and proselytizing, the easy hits and the subtle strokes, Team America would be a classic comedy because of its attention to rebellious detail. It takes a simple idea, applies puppets and a personal penchant for undermining authority, and then ties them into a great big ball of braggadocio that is almost impossible to resist. Sure, some may take offense at the non-PC parameters of the comedy (all the stars here belong to the Film Actors Guild, whose acronym is a blatant homosexual slam), while others may look at what's onscreen and wonder why Parker and Stone didn't push the tastelessness even further (as they do in the notorious, now completely uncut puppet sex scene).
As with any witty bit of entertainment, there will be those who dismiss it outright while others will embrace it in blind devotion. But one cannot deny the creativity, the challenge, and the chutzpah the duo faced while trying to bring this project to the screen. It may just be a self-professed (by Matt and Trey) action film with puppets, but Team America is also a dead-on document of our confused and complicated times. And naturally, it takes the messianic nature of the marionette to show us the truth…and the light-heartedness.
Considering that DVD has been around for several years now, it seems futile to pay so much attention to the digital transfers of current titles. Since the major studios understand that people are buying the box office hits more for their aesthetic than artistic aspects, they put a good amount of time into their fresh-from-the-cineplex sound and vision. Therefore, it is no surprise that Team America: World Police looks wonderful in its anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen image. The colors are crisp, the details dynamic, and there is nary a whisper of compression defects or edge enhancement to be found. Given that Bill Pope was behind the camera (he was the cinematographer for The Matrix and its sequels, as well as Spider-Man 2), the movie has a larger than life, big budget scope and feel and this dynamic DVD presentation captures it perfectly.
Sonically, the soundscape created for Team America matches the vivacious visuals bombast for bombast. While the dialogue is always clear and the effects finely modulated, what we really wanna hear is stuff blow up and guns rattling off round and round of ammo in pure surround sound bliss. Indeed, if that's what you are looking for, this DVD delivers in arsenal inspired spades. Both the Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 Surround fill your aural attributes with as much ballistics and mortar as your home theater can handle. The songs are equally evocative in the mix, moving from pure power ballad to fist-pumping Kenny Loggins soundtrack jam with equal aplomb.
Now, many will wonder what makes this an "Unrated and Uncensored Special Collector's Edition." Well, except for the added moments of puppet lovin', not much. There is no indication of other narrative additions, and from the small amount of deleted scenes included (only about four or five real omissions, with the rest being extended takes and bloopers), it seems that Parker and Stone put everything they had—or better yet, could—on the screen. The lack of a commentary aside, which will be discussed in a minute, it's nice to see Paramount fleshing out their releases. Team America is given a wealth of added content beyond the bonus moment or two, including eight featurettes that provide an hour-plus of insight into making the film.
Each segment is rather self-explanatory—"Building The World" discusses set design and realization while "Crafting the Puppets" walks us through the creation and size specifications (1/3rd scale, for those who are interested) of the marionettes. "Pulling The Strings" shows the huge crew as well as the complex choreographing necessary to bring the toys to life, while "Capturing The Action" allows Bill Pope to explain the special needs of shooting car chases and explosions in miniature. How those effects are achieved is explained in "Miniature Pyrotechnics," while the special challenges of bringing the dim-witted North Korean dictator to life becomes the focus of "Up Close With Kim Jong-Il."
The last two featurettes—"Dressing Room Test" and "Puppet Test" show how basic logistical problems were solved through intense run-throughs with the dolls. Stone and Parker appear often, making minor jokes and calling everything "sweet!" For those who are more concerned about the how-to than any other element of the production, these extras will be mandatory viewing.
For the rest of us, especially those who enjoy Trey and Matt in their alternate narrative personas, the lack of even the smallest attempt at a feature length discussion is disheartening. You can tell the duo had a hard time with this film, and the introduction offered is supposed to substitute for a full blown commentary. It doesn't. Instead, we see a couple of very tired men revisiting a subject that seems rather sore for both of them. While they are always funny, it looks like all the enjoyment they got out of this project came in the pre-production phase. Once on set, they appear disinterested.
The rest of the extras are rudimentary. The trailers tout films no one really cares about and the animated storyboards, while interesting, add very little to what we already know of the film (thanks to the featurettes). While far from flawless, this is still a decent set of contextual elements, many addressing the behind the scenes facets of bringing an action-packed puppet movie to life.
Behold, the healing power of puppets. They say laughter is the best medicine, so marionettes must be some manner of magic bullet. They add nothing but pure nonsensical novelty to anything they come in contact with, and make even the most dramatic scene shutter with silliness. While the pretend person projection of a ventriloquist's dummy lend themselves more toward the macabre than merriment, the rest of the stick and strings assembly has the power to make anything amusing.
That is why, as a basic concept, Trey Parker and Matt Stone's Team America: World Police is a no-brainer. Puppets pounding ass and firing missiles is just plain hilarious—and when you complement it with crude jokes and outrageous sexuality, the hilarity just gets piled higher and higher. Certainly this is not a film for everyone, especially those with a sense of humor as wooden as the armature that makes up these performers. But if you take this for what it is—a balls-to-the-wall satire on the strange bedfellows that are Hollywood and politics—you'll realize what so many already know. Team America kicks puppet booty!—and it does so brilliantly and hilariously.
F*CK YEAH! Team America: World Police is found 100% not guilty and is free to go and fight the good fight for all us liberty-loving capitalists. Paramount is also acquitted on all charges and praised for providing such a finely filled out DVD package.
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Scales of Justice
• "Team America: An Introduction" Featurette
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