Wednesday, 27 January 2016

COMEDY: South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999)

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South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (USA, 1999)
Directed by Trey Parker
Starring Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Mary Kay Bergman, Isaac Hayes

In my review of The Simpsons Movie, I described the film as essentially an extended episode of the TV series, which was unlikely to bring the show a great deal of new fans. I argued that the film contained many of the storytelling patterns and character problems which the series has developed over its decades-long run, but that there was enough by way of ideas and humour - however scattershot - to see it through.

 
South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut is surrounded by problems on all sides, some similar to The Simpsons Movie, others very different. It shares its essential narrative characteristic of being an extended episode, but is also overshadowed by the subsequent visual development of the series, not to mention the kind of subjects it has since chosen to tackle. Even in the wake of Team America: World Police, there's something about the film which feels quant and old-fashioned, almost to the point where you could call it innocent. But it's still a very funny comedy which has already aged much better than its yellow-skinned counterpart.
 
The first challenge confronting us in South Park (as it will be known hereafter) is its visuals. Whether by accident or design, The Simpsons' creators held off from making a feature film until long after the series had become successful. By the time they finally caved in, whether because of fan pressure or pushy accountants, the technology had advanced to the point where putting it on the big screen made a little bit of sense. The upgraded animation gave the film a lift and fooled us - at least for a short while - that what we were seeing in the cinema was still extremely televisual. 
 
South Park's creators, by contrast, made the jump to the big screen relatively early. It's fair to say that Matt Stone and Trey Parker weren't sure how long the show would last; given the edginess of its content, they may have felt that if they didn't do it now, the show could have been cancelled and they might never get the chance. The downside to this is that the animation is very akin to the early series, before the show had really found its feet around the time of 'Scott Tenorman Must Die'. The rough edges may be part of the charm of South Park, but on the big screen its aesthetic limitations are more easily exposed. A complete facelift could have alienated its core audience, but given the time and the higher budget that the film enjoyed, it wouldn't have hurt to polish things up just a little.
 
No amount of visual polishing, however, can mitigate South Park's narrative shortcomings. The real appeal of the series at its best is not how far it goes with bad taste humour and taboo imagery: it's the ability of Stone and Parker to take a complex issue and examine it with great nuance in 20-odd hilarious minutes. Later series have experimented with two-parters, three-parters or even a series-long arc, but even after the show moved on from Kyle saying "you see, I've learned something today", that's still the quality which keeps audiences coming back.
 
That's all well and good when you've only got 20-odd minutes to play with, and Stone and Parker do deserve credit for hitting the mark so often with the ideas that they want to explore. But it becomes a problem when you're trying to make a film that's four times as long, but you don't have four times the story. Some of the padding is pretty blatant, insofar as you can see where the big moral showdown is going to come from and become ever more anxious when we don't get there as quickly as possible. You could cut out all the scenes with The Mole, including the musical number parodying Lés Miserables, and the film wouldn't suffer at all.
 
While its execution may be on the baggy side, however, the ideas of South Park are still rich and pertinent. While whole aspects of The Simpsons Movie have aged poorly because of its over-reliance on dated pop cultural references, the debates about censorship, political correctness and moral double standards have if anything grown in importance. Even before Stone and Parker devoted the whole of the last series to this kind of subject matter, this film is ample demonstration of their passion for personal liberty and free speech.
 
A recurring motif in South Park over the years has been the boys' parents getting the wrong end of the stick and coming across as more idiotic than their offspring. Sheila Broflovski epitomises two traits which her son Kyle and his friends see right through as foolish and nonsensical. The first is the classic double standard towards liberty: she only believes in freedom of speech when it's promoting the things she condones, and seeks to suppress such liberties under the banner of protecting people. The second is a pathological failure to accept blame for one's actions, at least until it is too late to be useful. Bringing on the apocalypse may be an extreme example, but her behaviour distracts from the real issues and seeks a quick fix to a far more complex problem.
 
As well as attacking those who would suppress free speech, South Park also makes an intelligent (and foul-mouthed) argument for the virtue of retaining this liberty. Fitting Cartman with a V-chip may be funny, and stop people from being offended, but it robs him of his freedom to choose and therefore a crucial part of what makes him human. When he turns his malfunctioning chip into a weapon, it's not just an excuse to swear for the hell of it; it's a violent expression of human free will, literally defeating the demons which would contain it. Rather like the "cock, asshole and pussy" speech in Team America, what on the surface appears to be shallow, crass and adolescent is actually pretty insightful.
 
The film also takes aim at many of the series' regular targets, including the US military, racism, xenophobia and the incompetence of governments, both national and global. But Stone and Parker also have enough self-awareness to take the mickey out of themselves along the way. The characters of Terrence and Philip have often served as avatars for how the series is perceived, and the hysteria over the duo's first full-length film is a sly, postmodern dig at how this film would be hyped ahead of release. It's Stone and Parker's way of putting themselves into the film without it seeming like they are holding up the action to make a clever point.
 
The music in South Park is both surprisingly good and contributes to the episodic feeling of the film. A handful of the songs have become classics among the fans, from the Oscar-nominated 'Blame Canada' to the tasteless 'Uncle F***a' and the leftfield 'What Would Brian Boitano Do?'. But like a lot of musicals, the story is too thin to stop the musical numbers feeling like set-pieces which could be heard in any order. The songwriting skill that would later produce The Book of Mormon is here in plain sight, but the script that goes along with it has some catching up to do.
 
South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut is a funny if fault-ridden attempt to put the series on the big screen. Like The Simpsons Movie it is still a prisoner of its original format, hamstrung by its visual shortcomings and the lack of a consistent or expansive script. But for all its structural problems, the film makes up for it with a smart and subversive examination of still-pertinent ideas. It's hard to hold it up as any kind of benchmark considering where the series has since gone, but as a document of where we've come from, it still has appeal.

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NEXT REVIEW: Take the Lead (2006)

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