When Puppets Get Political

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The Motion Picture Association of America has given Team America: World Police an R rating for "graphic, crude and sexual humor, violent images and strong language — all involving puppets." That about sums up the new martial-arts musical marionette movie from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Inspired by the '60s British TV and movie series Thunderbirds, Parker and Stone have fashioned a naughty, handsome, sporadically funny pre-election recruiting poster for U.S. military values at their most myopically heroic.

Team America applies the innocent make-believe of puppets to numbingly real issues: the use of military power to fight insurgent forces and the vision of the U.S. as a superstud nation beset by terrorists abroad and liberal actors at home. It pulls off this brassy trope in the guise of an action movie in the Jerry Bruckheimer mode. Imagine Armageddon starring Pinocchio.


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The five-member Team America (whose three males all look like Kurt Russell after being dipped in a tank of Botox) has noble impulses but lousy aim. Chasing Osama bin Laden look-alikes in France and Egypt, the team members inadvertently blow up the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Sphinx and several pyramids. They need a recruit to get inside the terrorist mind, and who better than Gary, a Broadway actor? While Gary infiltrates the insurgents, North Korea's kooky dictator, Kim Jong Il, is making worse mischief. He dupes Alec Baldwin and other leftish members of the Film Actors Guild (FAG, in case you didn't notice) into being co-hosts of a peace conference in Kim's palace. Their criminal naivete earns the thesps decapitation, immolation and death by giant felines.

Although not up to the sublime level of a typical South Park episode, the film has a fine array of raunchy gags, from a volcano of vomiting to the already notorious sex scene comprising many positions and much anatomically incomplete nudity. Parker, Stone and their marionettes also have fun at their own expense, detailing things puppets can't do (shoot pool, dance, plausibly engage in martial arts). The real kick, however, is in the grandeur and detail of the production design, by Jim Dultz and David Rockwell. Paris, Cairo, the Panama Canal, the inside of Mount Rushmore and a terrorist hideout (modeled on the Star Wars cantina) look fabulous redreamed in miniature.

Virtually every Parker production wants to be a musical, and Team America somehow accommodates eight songs that poke fun in the eye of the Broadway-style ballad (Kim warbles "I'm So Ronery"), the Alan Jackson inspirational anthem ("Freedom Isn't Free") and Bruckheimer's costliest epic ("I miss you/ More than Michael Bay missed the mark when he made Pearl Harbor"). They keep the smiles coming until the end, when the film goes numbingly nuts and expends all its imagination on ways to kill off people like Helen Hunt and Janeane Garofalo.

It's risky to try reading the minds of Parker and Stone. But having mocked the President in the live-action family sitcom That's My Bush!, they seem now to be sharing his vision. The jokes about a paramilitary force that destroys countries it wants to save are a lot less bilious than the ones aimed at the lefty actors.

Sure, it's only a movie, but there's the possibility that Team America could do for the right what Jon Stewart and Michael Moore have done for the left: instruct and energize through japish humor.