Team America: World Police Review
Political statements take many forms, there’s the activists rally, the angry protest song, people chain themselves to railings, extremists commit suicide bombings, and sometimes people get to make hugely successful documentaries hammering their own propaganda in protest of, well, someone else’s propaganda. But with Team America: World Police, the makers of South Park have truly broken new ground, by making their statement with celebrity mutilation and puppet sex. I bet Emily Pankhurst is kicking herself.
Team America are the elite. America’s answer to the wave of terrorists crawling out of every corner of the globe, using their weapons of mass destruction to strike fear into the hearts of all good Americans everywhere. Nobody else seems to be lifting a finger to protect American values, so America has to send its best and brightest, along with their biggest weapons, all over the world to protect the way of life they hold so dear, because - let’s face it - if the French can’t live the American dream, then the terrorists have already won. But when Team America starts to suspect the biggest ever terrorist attack is imminent they discover their team has a weakness, they need a man who can infiltrate the terrorist’s camp, fit in seamlessly amongst them, gain their trust, learn their plans - and they need it fast. In short, they need an actor. They suspect Gary is just that actor, some say the finest actor in the world, but can he handle the responsibility of saving the entire world from the terrifying reign of terror handed down by terrorists?
For anyone that hasn’t heard, Team America: World Police is something a little different - its stars are all puppets. We’re not talking state of the art, 23 operators running remote controls, 4 men inside the suit, Oscar winning special effects puppets either, these are - apart from their faces - Captain Scarlet-esque marionettes. That’s not something you see every day, even the Thunderbirds movie was live-action, so why use puppets? Trey Parker and Matt Stone put it simply, they hate actors. It seems like in their ideal world they wouldn’t have to put up with actors, or more specifically their egos, so they decided to make a movie without them. And if that wasn’t enough to annoy them, well, the treatment many famous faces receive in the movie should be enough to ensure a bloodbath if Parker and Stone show up at the Oscars again. If South Park has taught us anything it’s that these guys aren’t afraid to offend anyone, and with Team America they seem to be making it clear that it isn’t just actors they hate, there isn’t anyone or anything that they don’t want to mercilessly parody at the moment. The idea apparently started as a simple joke, ‘wouldn’t it be funny to remake Armageddon with puppets, and not change a single line’ and surely nobody could have predicted it would end up like this. Not just that it would turn into a satire on the current state of American politics, and celebrities need to be at the forefront of every ‘important’ issue, but such a fantastic one. The trick to it seems to be that Parker and Stone hate everyone, every political party, every actor, and every Hollywood re-enforced stereotype.
Parker and Stone have a long history of songwriting, in fact their first film was Cannibal! The Musical, and the tradition is holding strong, with Team America overflowing with fantastically funny songs. The team’s theme song ‘America, Fuck Yeah!’ is ridiculously catchy and couldn’t sum up the movie (or the stereotypical American attitude they’re lampooning) any better. Having Kim Jong-Il sing ‘Lonely’ is sheer genius, not only because it’s hilarious to see one of the worlds most feared dictators singing about just needing a friend, but he’s been given a nasty speech impediment, so he’s really singing ‘Rone-ree.’ Whilst it may be cruel to mock such a thing - I remember Lost in Translation being slammed as racist for the same gag - somehow it doesn’t seem mean when it’s an unbalanced dictator being mocked. It’s not common for the characters to actually break into song though, most of the tracks are used as background music, so while there are a few performed by the ‘cast’ Team America is a long way from being a musical, which is a wise move, as the fact that things are taken so seriously - even when they’re blatantly ridiculous - is a big part of the fun of the movie. In fact, it ‘s central to the whole premise of ridiculing America, as the biggest problem Parker and Stone seem to be pointing out is that America really doesn’t know when it shouldn’t be sticking its nose in, and seems oblivious to any other point of view than “America is the saviour of the free world.”
One thing I must admit I wasn’t expecting, was the sheer quality of the production. South Park took animation back to as simple a place as possible, the construction paper look of basic shapes and solid colours couldn’t get much simpler without looking entirely childish - which is part of the show’s charm - so it wouldn’t have been surprising if Team America had been equally simplistic. However rather the opposite is true, with the production designers going to great length to make every set as detailed as possible, and the characatured cities look fantastic. Taking their cues from the stereotypically basic view of the outside world that’s so prevalent in big budget movies, whole countries have been distilled down to their landmarks, all or which seem to be present within a few hundred yards of each other. The Paris set has The Louvre, The Eiffel Tower and the Arc D’Triumph sitting around the same little park, the Cairo set has the Sphinx and the pyramids a stone’s throw from Petra, it’s a fantastic way of making the point, and just one of the near endless ways Parker and Stone have found to remind us just how idiotic movie makers assume we are.
Team America is a fantastically observed satire, delivered with as blunt an instrument as possible. It’s almost incredulous that such an intelligent message can be delivered by such a childish movie - the jokes are often as base as humour gets - but Trey Parker and Matt Stone still manage to come across as the only two sane men in America. They’re sure to have made a few enemies with this movie, as the shameless lampooning of the FAGs (that’s members of the Film Actor’s Guild) and the list of celebrities made the butt of a joke (and more often than not an evisceration) is too long to list. But what’s clear is they really don’t care, they hate the way their politicians act, they hate the way their political activists act, and they really, really hate the way their celebrities act, and Team America: World Police is a plea to the world not to stereotype all of America, there are people there that don’t fit into are image of the world’s biggest bully. Well, at least two of them, and they’re damned funny.
The Picture and Sound
Presented in anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen, Team America: World Police looks as good as the action movies it’s ripping apart. The colours a vibrant, the blacks are strong, and the detail levels high, it’s only some occasional slight aliasing that stops it from being truly excellent. The soundtrack however, is truly excellent. The sound designers have had a field day with the movie, giving it a hugely active sound field, and there isn’t a dull moment. It’s probably because there was no live audio recorded whatsoever, giving them a free hand when it came to deciding what the audience should hear, producing some fantastic results, easily on a par with the best the live-action action genre has to offer.
The extras mostly consist of short featurettes, each looking at a different aspect of the movie’s production. Whilst it would have been preferable to have a single documentary - the same structure could have been maintained, but the many repeated clips from the film could have been eliminated - the content is interesting none the less, and thankfully these aren’t your typical made for TV publicity pieces, meaning none of the violence, foul language or smut of the movie needs to be avoided.
Team America: An Introduction
This is a brief introduction to both the movie and the team, as well as letting us hear from Trey Parker and Matt Stone about why they wanted to make the film. Basically it boils down to the fact that they think Jerry Bruckheimer makes the funniest movies in the world, he just doesn’t know it, and the two of them have an intense hatred for actors.
Building the World
Even though the puppets are rather complex, they’re still a lot more basic than most of Hollywood’s big names, so the sets played a huge part in drawing you into the movie. They’re incredibly detailed, and this featurette looks at the intricate set designs, explaining how they distilled the many countries down to their most stereotypical versions and filled them with funny touches for the eagle-eyed viewer (or hardcore internet geek) to spot.
Crafting the Puppets
Even though Trey Parker and Matt Stone embraced the slightly shoddy nature of puppets, and the often poor articulation that comes with them, the faces of the puppets were incredibly detailed and articulate. This section shows us just how much technology is crammed into each puppet to make their faces move so well, as well as looking at the sculpting and design of the characters and their wardrobes.
Pulling the Strings
As if trying to shoot an entire movie with puppets wasn’t hard enough, Parker and Stone have a huge tendency to improvise, which apparently isn’t popular with puppeteers. More used to working to a confirmed script, with plenty of time to rehearse, it seems on this film they had to make it up on the spot depending on the director’s whims. Watching half a dozen puppeteers frantically yanking strings from a gantry trying to make two puppets have a kung-fu battle, you can really see why they like to know what they’re doing. This featurette also goes in depth to show us exactly how these puppets move, and how many people it takes to make even the simplest of scenes.
Capturing the Action
Being a parody of stupid Bruckheimer nonsense Parker and Stone wanted someone familiar with the genre to shoot their big action scenes. They recruited Bill Pope, who was director of photography on The Matrix, to capture them destroying everything in sight. Apparently he was tired of shooting all his movies against green screens, and relished the opportunity to actually shoot a movie with the effects in-camera, and he can be held responsible for the fantastic cinematic scope of the movie, making it look like a real Hollywood blockbuster.
“We pretty much tried to blow up everything we made. So we’d make it, shoot some stuff on it, then figure out a way in the script to blow it up, ‘cause if not it’s just going to go collect dust somewhere.” - Matt Stone
He’s really not exaggerating, and you can see why, because blowing stuff up looks really, really fun. Continuing to recruit the best from the movie’s they’re ripping apart, the team here have worked on the likes of Independence Day and Godzilla, and clearly know the best ways to destroy anything, so this featurette shows us what it’s like behind the scenes when you’re blowing all hell out of the world’s biggest landmarks.
Up Close with Kim Jong-Il
The movie’s bad guy - North Korean nut-job Kim Jong-Il - is a fantastic character, not just in the movie, but in real life too, so here we get to see his puppet being designed, as well as hearing some great stories about the lunatic (and movie buff) dictator.
Dressing Room Test
Offered with no explanation you can only assume this was a proof on concept test shot cheaply to convince Paramount to put up the money to go into principle photography, and unfortunately it doesn’t really contain anything of interest.
This is clearly a much earlier puppet test, and its washed out look makes it look rather like a real 70s puppet show. There are a few scenes acted out here, with just the Spotswood puppet on a single set, but it does contain a few funny jokes that didn’t make it into the movie, so at least there’s a reason to watch this one, though you can stop watching when they take the puppet onto the street and just film it wandering around.
Deleted/Extended Scenes and Outtakes
4 scenes from the movie, and a handful of outtakes are present here, and to be honest it’s disappointing there isn’t more, you’d have thought with all the improvisation that went into the movie as well as the logistic difficulties of puppeteering there’d be a lot of material for the outtakes at least. The deleted scenes are actually very good, and given their brief nature it’s hard to see why they didn’t make the movie - the highlight being a fight in Kim Jong-Il’s palace that mocks the chateaux fight from The Matrix Reloaded. Sadly though, the much talked about extended puppet sex scene isn’t present on the DVD, though it can be tracked down easily online.
The disc also carries animated storyboards and the original theatrical and teaser trailers.
The film is fantastic, in lesser hands it could so easily have been a one-joke movie, but Trey Parker and Matt Stone just seem to be getting better and better, and Team America easily withstands repeated viewing. The audio and video quality are up there with the best DVD has to offer, but even though the film has been given a reasonable release here, the fact that the UK hasn’t been treated to an uncut version of the film is a real disappointment, and those few lost seconds will be enough for many people to look to the unrated American release. Whichever you choose though, you can be assured that the movie is worth every penny.