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They come on strong, the South Park boys - Matt Stone and Trey Parker –with their rude, crude puppet epic, Team America: World Police. Like South Park, this film leaves no stone (or parker) unturned in its quest to offend people. Fletcher Reid pulls a few strings to explore the puppets’ masters’ world.

Six years ago, when they were finishing off their first big movie, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, Matt Stone turned to Trey Parker - or maybe it was the other way round - and said words to the effect: “That’s it. Enough of Hollywood. We’re out of here.”

They’d done a couple of low-budget movies (including Orgazmo,before they were really famous), and now they’d done a studio picture - albeit a disrespectful, potty-mouthed one that blamed Canada for most things.

"three-quarter scale puppets spouting obscenities, blood and bodily fluids"

Maybe the South Park movie’s worldwide success (although I never did check how it did in Canada) made Stone and Parker think again. Or maybe they just changed their minds. Whatever: they’re back. But there’s one big difference. This time, it isn’t stick-cartoon kids with funny-shaped heads spouting obscenities, blood and various other bodily fluids: it’s three-quarter scale puppets spouting obscenities, blood and bodily fluids. Especially the latter, in a sequence which robs The Exorcist of its record for the longest projectile-vomiting scene in the history of the cinema.

It will come as no surprise to their millions of fans that Stone and Parker, who came out of Colorado some time in the mid-nineties and gave the world South Park, may have raised the budget, but they haven’t really raised the taste barrier in their new film, Team America: World Police.

Still, they want everyone to know that they remain as even-handed as ever: they take the piss out of all nations, races and creeds with equal glee. “We don’t take any sides or try to make any big statements,” insists Stone. “It’s just like what we do on South Park – we just make fun of everything.”

Team America: World Police is about exactly what it says it is. “A lot of us have heard the phrase, ‘Who do you think you are, the world police?’” explains Stone. “Well, we decided to make that a totally real thing.” Or as real as you can with puppets.

"so gung-ho they would shock John Wayne"

The eponymous Team America are a group of US anti-terrorist special agents so gung-ho they would shock John Wayne. Operating from a high-tec, James Bond-style base (and cocktail bar) deep inside Mount Rushmore - whose presidential faces open their mouths, drop their jaws or flip the tops of their heads to let the Team’s rocket-propelled ships come in and out - they rapidly respond to trouble spots around the world, terminating with extreme prejudice any bearded fundamentalist terrorist (or anyone who looks like a bearded fundamentalist terrorist). The notion of collateral damage most definitely doesn’t apply: responding to an imminent attack in Paris, the Team get their men - and streets full of bystanders, babies in prams, the Eiffel Tower and all three wings of the Louvre get it, too. A little later, the Pyramids crumble. But what the hell, the world is safe for democracy.

In between, the Team find time for a little R&R and the sort of emotional crises that so often come with a stressful job working in close proximity to a group of extremely attractive, sexually-charged human beings (or, puppets). These wooden guys and gals know how to get it on: Team America features what is almost certainly mainstream Hollywood’s first full-frontal, totally nude sex marathon, made all the funnier by the fact that neither of the participating puppets is even vaguely anatomically correct.

Paying tribute to the great traditions of Hollywood action movies (although not all action movies: “I fucked up,” goes one song lyric, “like Michael Bay when he made Pearl Harbor”), Stone and Parker hired top specialists in every field, including cinematographer Bill Pope, straight off Spider-Man 2 and the Matrix films; special effects expert Joe Viskocil (the Terminator movies, Independence Day); and, given the special needs of their extensive cast, puppet designer Norman Tempia, who spent 10 years working with Jim Henson. For a bunch of wooden-heads held up by string, these guys (and gals) can certainly kick ass (and anything else that gets in the way).

The composition of Team America is in that great tradition of all-American hero movies like The Dirty Dozen, Kelly’s Heroes, Armageddon and Revenge of the Nerds: a closely knit group of specialists, devoted to their cause and to each other, and answering to a suavely urbane leader called Spottswoode and an all-seeing (but occasionally mistaken) supercomputer called Intelligence.

"to make this group really kick ass."

“Joe, the all-star quarterback from the University of Nebraska, is a natural born leader,” explains Parker, running through the Team members. “Sarah is the top empath from Berkeley’s School for the Clairvoyant. Chris is the best martial-arts expert Detroit has to offer. Lisa, a top Princeton psychology major, specialises in how terrorists think. Spottswoode is the group’s mentor, who puts it all together and manages everyone’s feelings. And Gary, the hero, is a maverick renegade actor. He’s the last piece of the puzzle to make this group really kick ass.”

When the story starts, Gary is a simple Broadway star, more concerned with his hair than with terrorism, and is first seen belting out ‘Everyone’s Got AIDS’ - the finale of the hit show Lease, which reduces the audience to tears. “I’ve never seen acting like that!” soon becomes one of the movie’s catchphrases. The Team needs an actor - because they need someone to go undercover and that, says Stone, “is all spying is - acting”.

The only one who doesn’t agree is Joe, who has hated actors ever since, aged eight, he went backstage at a touring production of Cats and was felt up by Mr Mistoffelees.
Spottswoode recruits Gary, spiriting him away in a turbo-powered flying limo chauffeured by a uniformed lackey called Baxter. Anyone with a vague sense that they might have been here before is right. Borrowing (not to say plundering) vast tracts of pre-existing popular culture, Team America draws on - among other things - the unique appeal of the original puppet-performed Thunderbirds series (not last summer’s movie): its sets, gadgets and costumes echo those created in a shed at Pinewood by the late Derek Meadows - only on a much more lavish scale.

"does not .. cut any corners, design-wise"

One thing Team America does not do is cut any corners, design-wise. It may glory in the fact that its heroes are puppets (no attempt is made to hide the strings), but the sets, costumes and special effects are up there with the best of Hollywood.

“In a way, this kind of film is more difficult than working on a period piece,” insists costume designer Karen Patch. “Nothing could be rented or bought because we were working on such a small scale. Also, since so many countries are represented, there are a huge variety of costumes. In the end, we made everything, finding fabrics with the smallest scale designs and using tiny buttons and little zippers.”

But enough with the buttons and zippers: let’s get back to the story. Gary’s one real hesitation about joining Team America has to do, not with the fact that their main target will be the evil North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il (played by a puppet modelled on the real Kim Jong Il, but speaking foul-mouthed English with a Daffy Duck accent), but with the iconic Americans he has managed to bamboozle: all those liberal Hollywood members of the Film Actors Guild (FAG), who support his plan for world peace, without realising it is part of a scheme to get all the world leaders together in one place and kill them. Why? Well, because that’s what evil dictators do.

FAG is led by Alex Baldwin, Gary’s idol, whom he regards as “the greatest actor of all time”. A Baldwin puppet - along with a Sean Penn puppet, a Susan Sarandon puppet, a George Clooney puppet, a Matt Damon puppet (which can do no more than say its own name) and a whole array of others - thus enter the fray, allowing Parker and Stone to put paid to any suspicion that Team America may be a cheese-eating surrender monkey of a movie in disguise. You name it, they mock it, down to current liberal darling Michael Moore, who puts in an appearance as a suicide bomber bent on destroying Team America’s headquarters.

Complete with its rousingly heroic theme song (‘America! Fuck, Yeah!’), Team America, like South Park, leaves no stone (or parker) unturned in its quest to offend people. It even manages to come up with a slogan for uniting the country in these troubled times, by insisting on the need for the individual to suppress his or her own selfish desires for the good of the country.

“Remember,” exclaims Spottswoode inspirationally, “there are no ‘I’s in ‘Team America!” The team is duly uplifted, until one of them remarks: “Yes, there is.”

"I just wanted to lie on the floor and cry"

“I loved doing this movie, and I think it turned out great,” says Stone modestly, “but there were times when I just wanted to lie on the floor and cry.”

“This is our last movie,” insists Parker. “We’re going to finish it and then we’re going to leave Los Angeles.” Last we heard, they’re still there.

Published December 2, 2004

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