Given my interest in a) South Park and b) dolls, I’ve long wanted to see Team America. Ever since it was originally announced in 2004, I was fascinated by the idea of a movie starring a cast made entirely of 1:3 puppets. If the content was generated by the same foul-mouthed pop-culture satirists, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, behind South Park, that could only be a bonus, right?
Wrong, of course. BJD lovers should see below for my extensive critique of the puppetry.
After watching Team America last night, I would like to say that I have rarely been so disappointed in a movie. I was expecting a) a mordant send-up of American jingoism, terrorism, action movies, Hollywood’s self-importance, Kim Jong-Il’s weirdness, etc. and b) and original and catchy use of puppets. The movie delivered on neither count.
As far as an action movie, Team America never rose above the creaky, boring cliches of the genre, such as the Unwilling Hero, the Love Interest Who Believes In Him, the Gruff Guy Who Eventually Supports The Hero, the Hero’s Dramatic Self-Doubt And Exit, Follwed By A Last-Minute World-Saving, blah blah blah. As I stared at the screen, waiting for something interesting to happen, I wondered if this was really the product of the same creative team who combined flatulent Canadian TV stars, songs like What Would Brian Boitano Do? and a Saddam+Satan gay love pairing to create an uproarious, silly and rather sharp South Park movie. Matt Stone and Trey Parker lost their big-screen edginess, I guess.
As far as the use of puppets, Team America also never exploited this ripe device. For just one example, the puppets had articulated mouths and eyelids, which made them very expressive, but this lifelikeness was rarely used. Instead, the makers favored multiple reaction shots that were just the puppet equivalent of a blank stare: DUHHHH. Was this intentional? Were they commenting on the characters’ vapidity? But no. If you remember, a running gag in the movie is the characters’ acting abilities, a skill that trades in expressiveness. So clearly the film makers wanted to showcase the puppets’ expressiveness, but, unfortunately, the puppets’ “acting mode” was just as uninflected, unblinking and unmoving as their “normal mode.” It seems like the creators got a cool idea — “Hey, let’s use puppets!” — but never fleshed out the concept to its fullest.
Not only were the Team America puppets boring and flat in their expressions, but the puppeteers did not know how to move the puppets! You have to understand that I was exposed to masterful puppetry [goblins from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop in Labyrinth] from a young age, and I’ve always known that clever use of posing, lighting and angling the camera can conjure up not just emotions, but also a sense of movement, in dolls. This is why the film disappointed me. The puppeteers made all the puppets rise to standing with weird, gravity-defying jumps. They made the puppets walk with less attention to leg and foot movements and more attention to dragging the puppets forward as if they were being blown by a gale. The puppet sex scene demonstrated that the puppeteers could have realistic control over relatively fine movements [i.e., a character thrusting his hips while keeping his lower legs stationery] , but, unfortunately, such attention to detail did not extend to the rest of the film.
I guess that the film makers got lazy. They thought that the very presence of the puppets would be sufficient. Maybe they assumed that puppets would be easier to work with than humans because puppets would do whatever the film makers wanted. The problem is that the film makers didn’t want the puppets to do very much. Such “dead space” and lack of imagination in their concept showed up blindingly in the final product. I turned off the DVD thinking that I could take one doll photo that could express more emotion, movement, subtlety, humor and irony than the entire film.