Contrary to popular belief, parody is not easy. Sure, you can string together a bunch of jokes at someone else’s expense, but even the funniest jokes, after a while, get tiresome. Ninety minutes is a long time, so if you don’t have something to motivate them, a plot and characters worth giving a crap about to hold everything together, it all becomes a series of unconnected punchlines without context (similar to the comedy of Dane Cook).
The problem often falls into one of two categories: a lack of focus on your subject (see Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein versus Dracula: Dead and Loving It), or a lack of respect for it (see the complete works of Friedberg and Seltzer… and by “see” I mean “for instance,” no one should actually see them).
Trey Parker and Matt Stone like to walk that line. In films like Team America and South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, they make it work by wrapping the things they love around the stuff they’re making fun of. Hence puppets spouting right-wing rhetoric and children singing Broadway songs about Canada. There’s a certain genius to it, and it’s made them both a lot of money.
So, I was curious to see Trey Parker’s first film, Cannibal: The Musical, from 1996 (shot in 1993 when he was still a student at University of Colorado at Boulder), available for free on Hulu.com. Would it be a freshman misfire, or the first step on a path that brought us marionettes shitting on each other?
And, honestly, I was pleasantly surprised.
The film is based on the true story of Alferd Packer, a prospector in the late 18th-century and the only man ever convicted of cannibalism in Colorado. Packer tells the story of leading a group of men from Utah to find gold in Colorado. Along the way his beloved horse disappears and he takes the expedition off course to find her, eventually getting snowbound in the Rocky Mountains, the end result being Packer gets arrested for eating his companions and sentenced to death by hanging.
It’s all told in a mixture of comedy, ranging from wordplay to slapstick, and song and dance that feels like an uber low-budget “Oklahoma!”, which the film cites as a template in its opening (and fanciful) scroll.
The whole effect is fun and cheesy and, while some of the jokes fall flat, it garnered several genuine laughs from me. And, between the “period” costumes that make everyone look like Al Borland, Japanese Native Americans and sprinklings of extreme gore, the film’s so earnest and fun you can’t help but get swept up in it.
But, what makes it all work is that Trey Parker and his cohorts really love the classic American Musical. And, they’ve made one complete with overture, reprise and ballet! This is truer in style than Chicago, and it’s funnier, too.
Everyone knows the difference between good and bad parody. You can feel it after the credits roll, when you’re driving home or, in this case, closing the browser window. It’s that moment of debate when you ask yourself “Was that a real movie, or was it just jokes?” Did it tell a story, did it make me care, or did I take a bathroom break without hitting pause and still not miss anything? It’s the difference between Airplane! and Airplane II.
Cannibal: The Musical is good parody. It’s truly shpadoinkle.