Team America: World Police

Trey Parker and Matt Stone want you to hate puppets.

Parker and Stone are the big brains behind the animated series South Park, and their newest film Team America: World Police runs like the worst episodes of that franchise, lacking charm, humor or a coherent plot line. What it offers instead is clichés on strings, gross-out gags of the lowest grade, and scenes so stupid that they even lack the honest ability to offend.

Rather than using animated characters, the pair has relied on marionettes to carry their newest film. This is primarily because they want you to leave the theater after watching Team America, return to your homes and burn all your puppets, action figures and dolls. They lie in bed thinking of different ways to make you want to harm G.I. Joe and Barbie, and they mostly succeed in this dreadful, nasty piece of work.

What other explanation can there be? It can’t be that difficult to draw the South Park characters can it?

The plot is thinner than a comic book. When Team America loses a member, it recruits actor Gary Johnston, a rising star on Broadway, to try to infiltrate terrorist networks. A worldwide plan emerges as the group pursues WMDs (weapons of mass destruction) across the globe. Although Gary is new to the challenges of being a member of an international special forces team and faces his own personal demons, he and busty puppet Sarah are drawn to one another as an excuse to show dolls having sex.

Ostensibly the story of a crass American special forces unit, Team America is actually an exercise in kitsch comedy from a creative team that appears stuck in the 1970s and early 80s. The puppets look like the unholy marriage of Davy and Goliath and the plot plays like an episode of the A-Team.

While we may find the occasional life-like movement or expression of a puppet particularly effective, the joke’s on us if we admit to actually liking them. Trey and Matt have used these ugly creatures as camp objects of derision in the same way the film Joe Dirt used muscle cars. They are straw men strung up for us to burn down, and I pity the fool who empathizes with a dummy.

We are suppose to snicker as the team goes after international terrorists or faces hostile foreign leaders like leader Kim Jong Il, not only because the situations are so darn funny – as when Michael Moore storms Team America’s stronghold, hotdog stains smeared across his face, and detonates a bomb strapped to his chest – but also because, heheh, ha, erm, because we’re watching dumb puppets!

Puppets pretending to be real people, reminding us how phony films are, how totally fake everything is even when it’s presented as serious.

This tactic means everything is fair game in the film, but it also robs any astonishment that might come from the puppetry or identifications with the characters, and cutting any ties we might have to the characters means that the audience feels very little attachment toward the film. The plot is a rehash of bad television shows, the dialog is more stiff and wooden than the puppets that have to speak it, and the jokes mostly involve dolls doing gross things.

The problem is that it’s really not that funny. Granted, there’s a horrific quality to seeing inanimate objects behave like humans, but the filmmakers’ wink-and-nod approach to the puppets sort of spoils the gross-out scenes. While earlier, awful films like Peter Jackson’s Meet The Feebles presented puppets as squirting, undulating beings with real (unpleasant) appetites, Team America’s puppets appear simultaneously less organic and yet more emotive. It’s as though human souls were imprisoned in wood, which is far creepier than amusing.

An extended vomit scene, for example, is actually more stupid than gross. Likewise, puppet sex is even less exciting (or funny) than you might imagine. You have a feeling that the genius who came up with the idea of having marionettes perform the Karma Sutra is congratulating himself for reproducing what basically every child of eight or nine did with G.I. Joe and Barbie.

But here’s the real point of the film. The liftoff scene is essentially a remake of the sort of commercials we lived through on Saturday mornings, waiting for Super Friends or Electra Woman and Dyna Girl to begin. Team America is a catharsis of the worst sort, a kind of revenge film created by grown geeks who’ve never come to grips with the fact that they didn’t get Big Jim’s action adventure set in the 1970s.

We shouldn’t be happy that these guys were denied a Six-Million Dollar Man doll when they were nine, but we don’t have to reward them for holding on to all that juvenile hatred either. They must not win: We need to save the puppets!


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