An animated character, like Bugs Bunny or Buzz Lightyear, can be a potent, charismatic presence. So can a Muppet, or even a fiendish ventriloquist’s dummy. But a marionette? It’s a block-headed, limp-bodied doll dangling from — and therefore controlled by — some unseen god. To describe it as animated would be an insult to the concept of free movement; emasculation is built into its being. In Team America: World Police, Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s gleefully daft kickass string-puppet burlesque, the heroes, a commando force whose headquarters are hidden inside Mount Rushmore, chase down the enemies of world peace with a jockish cheeseball fervor that wouldn’t look out of place in a Jerry Bruckheimer remake of The A-Team. They cruise through Egypt and North Korea in their Team America rocket plane, dune rover, and submarine, turning landmarks into bazooka fodder as they strike a blow for freedom. As scruffy, turbaned, and megalomaniacal foreign puppets die in showers of blood, the decadent theatrics are accompanied by a top-gun theme song that goes ”America, f— yeah!” I can think of one U.S. president, at least, who couldn’t have said it better.
Stone and Parker, the creators of South Park, have come up with a rah-rah toy universe of good and evil that’s really a hypercharged parody of the world according to the Bush administration. Team America takes off on several decades’ worth of xenophobic action clichés, but what it really skewers is the fusion of politics and pop culture — a world in which absurdly pumped-up film heroes have become the role models for warriors of armchair absolutism (”Mission Accomplished,” ”Wanted: Dead or Alive”). What the gonzo marionette combat slyly underlines is that virtually all our action cinema, and more than a little of our national policy, now celebrates fake strength and fake power.
With their big, shiny marble eyes and fragile, loping bodies, the members of Team America are a glorified series of Ken and Barbie dolls, their ranks bolstered by Gary Johnston (voiced by Parker), a caramel-throated Broadway actor who’s recruited, with maximum absurdity, to be their lead spy. The team’s control-room chief, Spottswoode, a white-haired bureaucrat in the James Mason mold, never loses his stentorian cool, even when he’s commanding Gary to, uh, go down for his country.
The team’s reigning enemy is Kim Jong Il, the dictator of North Korea, who skulks around his fish-tank-walled lair in the mode of an early James Bond villain, tossing forth threats in an Asian Elmer Fudd lisp of deepest incorrectness (yes, Parker again). Kim fancies himself a solo troublemaker, but he’s got help, and I don’t just mean the Islamic terrorists to whom he’s trying to sell weapons of mass destruction for the sheer fun of seeing the world blow up. I’m speaking of peacenik Hollywood crusaders Alec Baldwin, Sean Penn, Janeane Garofalo, and Tim Robbins, who in Team America would sooner sign on to attack the United States than watch the United States win. Everyone in the film fights everyone else to a gory and satisfying death, yet the warring factions have more in common than they think. They’re all hanging from strings of their own vanity.
As one of the few critics who didn’t love South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut and, indeed, can take the TV show only in small doses (I experience sensory deprivation watching Colorforms talk fast and swear), I was amused more or less throughout by the ingeniously designed and executed stunt that is Team America. The movie, with its stoic re-creation of the ’60s Thunderbirds style, has madly intricate sets of places like Paris and the Panama Canal; a montage of naked marionette sex in enough positions to give G.I. Joe a hernia; a trenchant tweak of Michael Moore; a lame poke at Pearl Harbor; a gushing river of puppet vomit; a witty parody of Rent’s rockin’ empathy, with a title song that goes ”Everyone has AIDS!”; enough unwitty homophobic aggression to give even South Park fans pause (the movie’s Hollywood liberals all belong to the Film Actors Guild — F.A.G.); and a deliriously obscene running metaphor in which the dynamics of world power are reduced to everything that the three naughtiest body parts could possibly do to one another.
Since the movie comes on as a bombs-away political satire, you may ask: Where, in Team America, is Osama bin Laden or Donald Rumsfeld? Stone and Parker concoct their own play-it-safe version of Bush’s al-Qaeda/Iraq trade-off by making Kim Jong Il the chief baddie, buying into the ”axis of evil” even as they satirize it. As a send-up of terrorism, Team America has more mild sizzle than bang. Its real target is the axis of ego, which knows no borders.