Obviously, a lot of most people’s analysis of Team America will center on the political messages of the film. What exactly are they trying to say? Let’s get back to that in a minute, though.
For starters, this is by far the fanciest, best looking visual presentation Parker and Stone have ever put out. The denizens of South Park are notoriously cheaply drawn, in what by my reckoning amounts to a conscious punk rock DIY effect, even though they now obviously have lots of money and high end equipment. Of course, hearing that Team America would be strictly a marionette puppet play might not cause one to expect much on a graphic level.
However, the puppets turned out to be a surprisingly effective expressive vehicle visually. These are not little cheap kiddie toys from Toys R Us. For one thing, they have these high tech animatronic heads that were put to great use. They clearly left the strings visible as a conscious affect, not out of necessity.
By the way, this is apparently already the highest box office puppet movie ever that does not involve Muppets.
Indeed, in retrospect the effectiveness of the puppet Film Actors Guild was one of the funniest jokes on the actual actors. In particular, the doppleganger puppet Alec Baldwin did arguably better, more expressive acting than anything I ever recall seeing from the “real” and supposedly stringless Alec Baldwin.
Plus, the sets they built for the puppets were really outstanding. They got a great cheap toy effect for the opening scenes in Paris, with the destruction of the Eiffel Tower simply falling over. Yet there were also lots of intricate details, such as in Kim Jong Il’s palace for his “I’m So Ronery” setpiece. Check out, for example, the big glass case of Hummel figurines, or whatever exactly that was.
I’ve found reaction to this movie real interesting as a kind of Rorschach on the reviewers. How that applies to me now I’ll leave to y’all to figure out. But Roger Ebert particularly graded the movie all the way down to 1 measly star, largely on grounds that he thought the movie to be nihilistic. For starters, nihilism didn’t stop him from digging, for example, Leaving Las Vegas.
But he’s got it all wrong to call this movie nihilistic. It does indeed pretty strongly embrace a set of what are at least intended to be positive values.
Put it this way, the key to understanding the intended statement is to get that the Team America action theme song, “America, F*&k Yeah!” is essentially sincere.
Which is not to say that Americans are beyond criticism. They certainly criticize American behavior. Indeed, at the height of the movie, the spokesmen for Team America explains to the gathered dignitaries of the world that “Americans are dicks.” [Of course, consider the other two possibilities- vaginas and rectums.] We’re prone to arrogance, often stupidly clumsy and hamhanded, and seem sometimes to cause nearly as much damage as we avert- and to be unaware of the damage.
Yet watching closely, Team America are in fact clearly the good guys on whom the world does in fact depend. Yes, Team America doesn’t answer to anybody, and managed to destroy both the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre before the opening credits. But also, there were in fact terrorists with WMDs, and Team America was the only thing stopping them.
By any reasonable standard, the screenplay should be nominated for an Oscar. The story is fairly involved and tightly scripted, especially for an animated film- for which category this movie is Oscar qualified. Of course, there are lots of great jokes and funny lines of dialogue.
However, I particularly appreciate the care they put into character and motivation. At one point, for example, their Kim Jong Il very directly explained his motivation as a desire to spread “equality” by making EVERY country into a Third World country. He’s quite goddam serious in the middle of the gay jokes and puppet sex and foolishness. Of course, it is both humorous and a deadly serious point when he feeds Hans Blix to his shark.
What confuses Ebert is that they criticize America with love. Team America is less than perfect, but they’re humanities’ best hope. Honest. Lord help us, but thank heavens they’re “coming again to save the motherf(*%ing day.” If you think America’s bad, consider the alternatives.
The best jokes are largely at the expense of the Film Actors Guild. The centerpiece speech by Sean Penn was particularly delicious, and you can see why he hates them so. He laments the terrible killing and destruction the Americans have wrought. He harkens poetically about what a wonderful place Iraq was before the arrival of the evil Americans, with rivers of flowing chocolate, and children with their “gumdrop smiles.”
Puppet Tim Robbins also had a nice speech, delivered in a condescending kiddie affect in condemnation of Big Corporations. See, they’re just sitting up there in their corporate HQs, “acting all… corporation-y.” Eew!
They had a particularly genuinely charming scene in which a couple of the Hollywood FAGs get taken out by tiny live action kittens, which scales out right for them to represent huge panthers to these marionettes.
Again, praise and appreciate the precision of the writing, and the moments that make the point. Speaking on behalf of the Film Actors Guild, master thespian Alec Baldwin explains to the world peace conference (organized by Kim Jong Il, naturally) about the principles of peace they represent. The Film Actors Guild believes in dealing with dangerous violent psychopathic dictators through understanding and talk, “cause that’s the FAG way.” Nicely put.
Note that the Hollywood FAGs business really isn’t actually any kind of mockery of homosexuals. I don’t think any of the members of the Film Actors Guild were gay. Plus, the one act of homosexuality in the movie involved members of Team America. Now, marionette fellatio is an inherently amusing idea of a lowbrow variety, but they packed it with a great dissective satire of male bonding and trust issues that, again, makes the scene work on multiple levels at once.
Perhaps it’s especially easy for me to appreciate the movie fully in that it seems to fairly closely reflect my own views, but there’s certainly enough good mockery of American foibles to satisfy all but the most ravenous Michael Moore fan. Note, however, that Team America also presents a far more thoughtful, precise and nuanced political analysis than Fahrenheit 9/11 or any other of Michael Moore’s perversions of Geometry and Theology.
Team America represents also a considerably more modest statement than the liberal celebrities. Unlike Bruce Springsteen or Michael Moore, these guys were not presuming to try to effect election outcomes. They weren’t making some cheap power play, trying to be kingmakers. Indeed, they named no American politicians at all. They were comic artists making their own humble analysis of the world situation, but the last thing they would ever do in life is to act like the Hollywood FAGs.
There are also all the other less controversial, but nonetheless funny levels or layers of comedy working at the same time. Besides being a political statement, it of course works as a parody of cheesy action movies, Jerry Bruckheimer movies- and the way those movies color our perception and reaction to real-world events. In fact, the great love song involves a character expressing how his love for his woman is greater than Ben Affleck’s need for acting lessons in the tender ballad “Pearl Harbor Sucked.”
I’m told that indeed, there are numerous direct quotes in the script from various famous action movies. I’m just not knowledgeable enough about the genre to pick up on them. Sounds like a delightful trivia game.
What’s not to like? You’ve got a strong storyline with sharp, precision political satire. You’ve got great puppets, outstanding original songs, suicide bomber Michael Moore, and of course the infamous puppet sex scene.
You really have to appreciate the creative genius involved in provoking the MPAA into threatening an NC-17 rating to a bunch of puppets. Not only that, but to puppets without genitalia. They’re not even anatomically correct puppets, and just about got the voodoo rating.
So whaddya want, a rubber biscuit? It’s got everything. I haven’t seen everything this year, and there are still a few weeks left, but this looks like the movie of the year. It’s the sharpest, funniest, and most joyous movie experience you’re likely to find this year.