South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999)

D: Trey Parker
Voices: Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Guests including George Clooney, Minnie Driver.

Animated musical comedy from the popular bad-taste television series following the adventures for four small boys in a Colorado town where all manner of surreal, satirical shenanigans take place with alarming regularity, and where one of them dies in every episode. For some the nadir of postmodern American culture, for others a provocative satire, for others still just a bunch of funny stuff that happens, South Park will undoubtedly remain a talking point for future media historians, and seems to have been designed with that in mind. The film version is more of the same, only "bigger, longer & uncut"; a deliberately offensive, terrifyingly blunt and often hilariously funny skewering of the conventions of contemporary society and their representation by the media. The plot of the film has Stan, Kyle, Cartman and Kenny attending a screening of the foul-mouthed "R" rated film "Asses of Fire" starring their favourite TV stars, Terrence and Philip, Canadian comedians who specialise in fart jokes. When Kenny is accidentally set on fire just after seeing the movie, the parents of South Park (particularly Kyle's easily-offended mother) launch a crusade; not against movies, or against parental irresponsibility, but against Canada, even if it means full scale war or even the apocalypse.

South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut gets right to the point quickly and consistently. Joyous about its liberation from the constraints of broadcasting restrictions, the film makes liberal use of every swear word known to man, and invents some interesting new combinations during the torrent that is the sequence from "Asses of Fire" we get to see. It is self-reflexive from the get go, beginning with syrupy credits and a cheerful song introducing us to the "Red Neck town" where the action is about to take place. Aware of what its audience expects and of how people from both reactionary and liberal communities will respond to it, it constantly plays with expectations and pre-empts response (its ad campaign even drew attention to its cheap and tatty animation style, though mind you the computer-animated sequences set in Hell designed by Blur Studio are very impressive). Half of its jokes depend upon the audience's willing acknowledgement that the film is as much about itself as it is anything else, and that "Asses of Fire" and its Canadian martyrs are ersatz versions of the film and its makers. It attacks hypocrisy and social irresponsibility, but one could argue that the merchandising bandwagon generated by this franchise needs checking and that at some point we have to be careful about just how intelligent an audience needs to be before the satire is effective and it's not just a lot of fart jokes and profanity after all.

Still though, it is funny, and that helps. Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone (and co-author Pam Brady) are not idiots, and their script reflects a good awareness of structure which, against the odds, ensures that the film does not feel like an overextended episode of the show (near the climax one character looks at his watch, which bears the legend "Act Three: The Ticking Clock", which shows they've been reading Syd Field, and find him as ripe for parody as anyone else). It is also a good musical as musicals go. Many of its songs are more enjoyable and memorable than those in recent Disney films, and some are direct parodies. Satan's soulful rendition of "Up There" combines Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid, while the children's anti-parent rallying hymn "La resistance" is clearly a gag at the expense of Cameron Mackintosh's Les Miserables. These are not the best tunes, but the wonderfully obscene "Uncle Fucka" from "Asses of Fire" (which is even done in a funk/rap version in a joke about the culture of promotional synergy), "Blame Canada" and the classic "Kyle's Mom's a Bitch", introduced on the TV show, are as eminently hummable as anything from The Sound of Music, though they are unlikely to turn up in the repertoire of the middlebrow operetta fan anytime soon.

It is a taste barometer, and it is easy to find it all just a bit too much. Of course that's precisely the point. Humour is about breaking boundaries and challenging taboos. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut is desperate to smash what few boundaries are left in twentieth century society by way of showing us how twisted we all can be. Not only does it do a Lenny Bruce with profanity, it deals with race and sexuality with the same, unswerving dedication to saying what should not be said (a gag at the expense of Glory gives Isaac Hayes' Chef a nice moment). It lashes out at almost every element of contemporary popular (postmodern) culture, and saves a few barbs for traditional targets like social class and etiquette. Though various celebrities make vocal cameos, it also attacks celebrity itself, pitting Terrence and Philip against Brooke Shiels and Conan O'Brien (also a producer of The Simpsons, of course, the show which partly paved the way for South Park itself), blowing up the Baldwins and showing a Canadian Government spokesman explaining how they have frequenlty apologised for Bryan Adams. It builds up a nice head of steam at the climax where brutal, gory war erupts between Canada and the U.S., after a U.S.O. show, defiantly challenging its own assertion that the MPAA allows any kind of horrific violence but frowns on swear words in an attempt to have a go at both.

Of course, like any great comedy, it does need us to care about its taboo breakers, and there's something irresistibly human about the poorly animated foursome and the menagerie of weirdoes who populate their home town. Series devotees will be keeping their eyes peeled for the fate of their favourites (Jesus is in there, look out for him as a U.S. Army soldier marching to fight the Canadians), and there are plenty of in-jokes and cameos which will mean more if you've been paying attention to the show itself. For some, this is probably a sign of moral turpitude anyway and likely to exclude you from social gatherings for several decades. But while I have to say that I do enjoy the show and I did enjoy the film, I feel it only fair and responsible to note that there is a very, very fine line here between breaking taboos for the purpose of comedy and satire and just exploiting them. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut walks the line. Some may feel it crosses over, and may even enjoy it all the more for that. You don't pay in to see this movie if you're not prepared for as much crudeness as you've ever seen or heard in a mainstream film, and with the names of both Paramount and Warner Brothers attached to the project, this is not subversive underground experimental animation by any stretch of the imagination. This is a film with massive public profile and which is positioned to make an actual contribution to late twentieth century media society, it therefore requires that we are all the more mindful of what it say sand does.

Those who can take it will probably enjoy it, and though there are a few clunkers in there (the existentialist French escapologist and the obsession with Saddam Hussein are not particularly good), on the whole it is consistently funnier than many contemporary comedies, and it certainly makes its arguments clearly. Yet we must be responsible about it, not to the extent that we try to ban it, repress it or pretend it doesn't exist, but despite the fact that it is a comedy and it appears a trite little trifle, it requires that we see it for what it is, not just for what we'd like it to be. It is an adult comedy which requires an adult mind to understand. A juvenile mind will get kicks from it, but if there is a reason to see the film it is not just to get off on bad language and sex jokes. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut does work as a media satire and it is funny both on a gut level and in touching those parts that safe films just can't reach. It is a pity though that its attack on media-related hysteria will fall on deaf ears, and in a sense this brings us full circle to a point where we have to wonder if it really does have an important social function to fulfil as a boundary breaking film. Will it stop the madness or make it worse? Only time will tell.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.