For a moment there, it looked like The Interview was going to be the most important comedy of the 21st century. With hacks and terrorist threats obstructing its planned Christmas Day release in the United States, it was easily the most discussed movie of December 2014.
In case you forgot, it transpired that U.S. theater chains refused to show the film in the wake of the threats, forcing Sony to pull their advertising and distribution plans. It eventually hit video on demand services on Dec. 25 after widespread calls for it from the press and President Barack Obama, no less.
But one of the more interesting and disappointing developments of the controversy came when theaters tried to book Team America: World Police as a defiant alternative, and Paramount blocked it from happening. Ten years on, or even now 15 years afterward, would Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s uber-topical satire ever be made nowadays?
Like The Interview, Team America wasn’t an overtly political film as much as a riposte to the silliness of both sides of an argument. In Team America, that means a fictionalised Kim Jong Il who is privately masterminding all of the world’s terror campaigns, and a bunch of patriots on both ends of the American political spectrum, who take it on themselves to pass judgement on the rest of the planet.
Oh, and there’s the added hilarity of the actors who starred in the film. The Motion Picture Association of America’s rating still says it best- “Rated R for graphic crude and sexual humor, violent images, and strong language – all involving puppets.”
Inspired by Gerry Anderson’s Supermarionation techniques, Parker and Stone wanted to make a Thunderbirds pastiche and were spurred on when they discovered, much to their disappointment, that Jonathan Frakes’ now-infamous revamp would be a live-action take.
Somewhere between that idea and Team America: World Police, they hit upon the notion of simply doing a beat-for-beat remake of The Day After Tomorrow with marionettes, after they got hold of the script and laughed themselves silly at the idea of a sudden attack of global warming. The Day After The Day After Tomorrow literally would have been released one day later than Roland Emmerich’s environmental disaster movie, but they were warned off the idea by lawyers.
That was eventually channelled into the season 9 episode of South Park, “Two Days After The Day After Tomorrow,” while the puppet movie became, as Stone described it at the time, “a send-up of these super important huge action movies that Jerry Bruckheimer makes.”
He told Variety: “Our cast will be deliberately made of wood, but that will only be taking to the extreme what is evident in many Hollywood movies right now.”
The story finds Broadway actor Gary Johnston being whisked away from a Rent take-off to help Team America infiltrate a terrorist group. Elsewhere, the paramilitary group’s antics are widely criticised by the liberal media and the Film Actor’s Guild, (there’s a reason why the real-life actors’ union goes by the Screen Actors Guild and an entirely different acronym) with Kim Jong-il stoking the fire.
As suggested by the original plan to just remake an existing script for one of these movies, there could have been a danger of making a parody with puppets just being a hat on a hat. Many of the film’s very best gags come from the hilarity of using a marionette cast in melodrama or physical action sequences.
The script, by Parker, Stone and their South Park writing partner Pam Brady, was apparently much denser with jokes at one point. Then filming began and the writers realised that it’s funnier to see puppets do drama than to see them do jokes.
The puppets themselves were provided by the Chiodo brothers, who also worked on Critters and Killer Klowns From Outer Space, and shot by cinematographer Bill Pope. Throughout production, Parker and Stone also underwent extensive reshoots to get every shot just right, paying more attention to detail. The result is gorgeously designed and shot, but Parker and Stone credit this as the hardest thing they ever did, leading them to rule out ever working with puppets again.
But even if it had been made in live-action, it’s still a towering work of satirical silliness. Like many episodes of South Park, it’s even-handed in its mockery of each side, while mercilessly skewering its genre with countless money shots involving the destruction of landmarks (the Eiffel Tower gets it in the first ten minutes, and other targets include the Panama Canal, Mount Rushmore and the pyramids) and Michael Bay-brand gung-ho sentimentality.
With regard to its parody of Kim Jong-il, Parker provides the kinda, sorta extremely racist vocal stylings that gave us the show-stopping ballad “I’m So Ronery” and made the dictator into one of the most iconic comedy villains in recent memory. If anything, it goes further with the elder Kim than The Interview did with his son, by not only impaling him on a German diplomat’s pickelhaube, but also having an alien cockroach crawl out of his corpse and fly away in a spaceship, swearing revenge.
Kim Jong-il was a noted cinephile who, according to CNN, amassed over 20,000 movies in his VHS collection, but he never commented on Team America publicly. It was naturally banned from North Korean cinemas and it was reported that they asked the Czech Repubic to do the same thing, to no avail. On the DVD extras for the film, Parker jokes that they would love to have him sing the character’s theme if it got an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song.
The biggest controversy that the film caused at the time was with the MPAA, whose backwards rating system had previously been lampooned by Parker and Stone in South Park: Bigger, Longer And Uncut. The infamous puppet sex scene between Gary and team-mate Lisa had to be submitted nine times before it could be passed with an R rating, rather than the prohibitive NC-17.
In Kirby Dick’s excellent documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated, Stone admitted: “We purposely left in stuff that we didn’t even want in [the sex scene], cos you have to give them something to cut so they feel like they pissed on it somewhat. So, we put in every second we shot, a ridiculous 4 minute sex scene… just to push the line way back, so they’d cut to [where we want it].”
Does it hold up?
With any of Parker and Stone’s satirical work, there’s a question of whether it holds up. Without changing the look of the show, the improvements in techology have allowed South Park to be made within a week of actually airing, making for a show that has gotten steadily more up to the minute over the course of its 18 seasons. If you seek out the Comedy Central documentary 6 Days To Air, you can get a pretty good idea of their painstaking process from there.
Team America was similarly in progress right up to the wire, thanks to the difficulties of the way it was made- many of the film’s producers saw the finished product for the very first time at the US première. As with weekly episodes of South Park, it’s a film of the moment in which it was made.
That’s not to say, however, that the film doesn’t hold up. Many of the visual gags are timeless anyway and it’s hard to imagine that intonation of “Matt Damon” will ever be not-funny, even if his heightened profile in the last decade has reduced that version of him to an unfair caricature.
If anything, the state of the world and the quality of action cinema have only gotten more bonkers since 2004, and it’s tantalising to imagine what the hell Team America would look like if it were made today. The Interview may age badly, partly because of the huge significance lent to what was intentionally a silly satire but also because its topical references are more based in the present moment.
Parker and Stone didn’t have to deal with nearly as much controversy when they finally got their puppet film out, but looking back at Team America: World Police, it’s a shame that they haven’t made a film since then.
They’re still at their pointed best for 10 weekly instalments of South Park, in which they can still tell long-form stories like 2013’s triple-bill of Black Friday, A Song Of Ass And Fire, and Titties And Dragons. Taking in such varied subjects as the Black Friday shopping rush and the venality of the console war between PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and likening each to the consumerist satire of Dawn of the Dead and the epic machinations of Game of Thrones, that mini-arc may be the closest they have come to the satirical breadth of their last cinematic outing.
Parker and Stone have honed their storytelling craft on television and seem particularly bummed out by the limitations of movie studios and the MPAA, but Team America still stands as testament to their keen instincts for the absurdity of both sides in an argument. All involving puppets.