Team America: World Police is the all-marionette satire of our current administration’s penchant for unprovoked invasion. Its creators, the South Park team, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, had the brilliant idea of debunking the mindset that brought about the invasion of Iraq without ever mentioning Bush, Cheney, et al., much less showing them, and without overtly referring to the invasion. They accomplish this by parodying the movie genre that most nearly approximates the Bush-Cheney ethos: the military commando action flick (think Rambo, Red Dawn, Uncommon Valor, many Chuck Norris movies). And they’ve reinforced the mockery by having the feats of derring-do performed by floppy puppets rather than by pumped-up actors.
When we first meet the Team America commandos, they are invading Paris to kill some Islamic terrorists. They get the villains but-oops!-there goes the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower. Aw shucks, collateral damage, and isn’t it just like the French to stand around, mouths gaping in horror, just because a couple of buildings got a little dusted.
So goes the rest of the movie, as the World Police heads for a showdown with Kim Jong Il, who, it turns out, is the mastermind behind Islamic extremism (oh well, if it wasn’t Saddam, then why not Kim?). The writing is often nastily amusing (to say nothing of the visuals), but it is really the use of the marionettes that makes the movie (or at least its first two-thirds) funny. These aren’t digitally crafted wonderments but plain old Howdy Doody string puppets, and their floppy walks and gestures beautifully undercut the macho posturing. Since puppets can’t really make eye contact or fill even the briefest of pauses with glances or twitches or eyebrow-raising, there are many dead spots on the soundtrack. But, rather than impairing the dialogue, these dead spots nicely italicize its absurdities.
Yes, I laughed a lot but I left the theater feeling jaded, even run down, rather than exhilarated. Two reasons for this. First, despite the humor achieved by using inexpressive dolls, I found myself, midway through the movie, hungering for a human countenance, any human countenance-I would have settled for the slit-eyed meanness of Donald Trump or the utter blankness of Britney Spears-any face not made of wood!
Second, and more important, Parker and Stone don’t sustain the political satire of the initial scenes. Instead, they unintentionally turn their movie into a different, smaller kind of satire, a lampooning of Hollywood lefty celebrities. Because Parker and Stone wanted to satirize the mindset of George W. and Co. by getting inside it, they picture Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Alec Baldwin, Sean Penn, all the usual suspects, not only as war protestors but as gun-toting, karate-chopping champions of the North Korean dictator. On paper, that’s a valid way of satirizing right-wing paranoia. But the practical problem is this: since we’re inside the Bush-Cheney mindset, the politicians are always offstage, while the objects of their paranoia are always on, and the more we laugh at the Hollywood stars, the more Team America looks like direct satire of Hollywood and less and less like an attack on politicians. And that’s a very odd thing for a political satire to do. Unlike their puppet commandos, Parker and Stone cannot say, “Mission accomplished!”
Since The Incredibles is a Pixar feature, I went to it expecting thrills and laughs, and, yes, I laughed often and had a few thrills, but what caught me off guard was how much beauty there is in this movie-a sublime, silly beauty-and how much social satire. The satire informs the first third of the story as we watch the caped superhero, Mr. Incredible (his mild-mannered alter ego is Bob Parr), perform his dazzling rescue missions while wooing his female counterpart, Elastigirl. Alas, the citizens rescued by Bob live, as we all do, in America the Litigious, and though Bob may have saved them from criminals and crashing trains, he couldn’t spare them whiplash or psychological trauma. Hey, somebody’s gotta pay the bills, so Bob finds himself lumbered with a thousand lawsuits. At this point, I didn’t understand why the federal government stepped in (isn’t Bob a private agent?) but it does by putting Bob in the Superhero Protection Program, complete with relocation, change of name, and a new, unheroic white-collar job. But oh, that white collar strains against Bob’s muscular neck as painfully as his heroic instincts strain against the stringencies of his insurance claims adjusting job. He commits the ultimate insurance no-no: he actually tries to help the customers collect by pointing out the relevant contract clauses and steering them to the proper bureaucrats. Pretty soon, a steaming supervisor charges into Bob’s cubicle and screams about the need to keep stockholders happy and soon the supervisor is in a hospital bed and in traction. You just don’t talk to superheroes that way.
It’s obvious what the thrust of the satire is, but the obviousness doesn’t make it any less funny, less pointed or-and this quality is rare in satire-less poignant. In one of his journals, the poet James Dickey noted that the American male tends to live a life of constant apology. The rules of society often seem to be designed as an antidote to testosterone, and Bob Parr-nervously peering over his cubicle dividers to make sure his fellow clerks don’t overhear his efforts to help clients, or guiltily sneaking from his house to join another ex-superhero for a boys night out rescuing people from stick-ups and burning buildings-becomes a memorable image of male aspiration curtailed.
The satire pretty much evaporates once Bob accepts a job from a mysterious company that then (for reasons I’ll let you discover) tries to destroy him and his family. At this point, The Incredibles turns into a more conventional though exceedingly good action film. And when wife and children come to Dad’s aid, it is Elastigirl (by now, Elastiwoman, surely) who dominates a good deal of the action. While Bob’s bulk sometimes works against him in literally tight spots, his super supple wife often uses her pliantness to save the day. Hurled with her kids out of a wrecked plane and plunged into the ocean, mom turns herself into a boat with children snugly aboard. The image is both funny and very beautiful.
This frequent visual beauty is always at the service of humor and suspense, and sometimes even mocks itself, as in the scene in which Bob, trapped in the villain’s compound, sees a guard atop a high wall. The guard presents a still, commanding figure viewed against a gorgeous, peach-colored sky. The stillness, the quiet, the motionlessness seem unbreakable and suggest the power of any villain who can command such a serenely sinister fortress. How can even a superhero such as Mr. Incredible prevail against such monumental, slumberous power? And if he can, what supermodern, technologically sophisticated weapon will he have to employ?
Well, Bob picks up a rock, lobs it at the guard and-boink!-over the guard goes. So much for gorgeous skies and slumberous power and invincible villains.
There has been some critical comment as to how much of this film’s humor may go over the heads of children. Yes, some of the cultural references may escape kids, but there is enough surface meaning to each joke and stunt to make up for that. For instance, when Bob goes to a couturier catering to superheroes, my daughter couldn’t realize that this brisk, butch little female is based on the great movie costume designer, Edith Head. But since she didn’t know what she didn’t know, my daughter simply delighted in the character’s feistiness and didn’t feel she was missing anything. And she wasn’t. Of course, when the DVD comes out with all its “special features,” I’ll discover all the cultural references that I missed.