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Puppet masters

The smart alecks behind `South Park' send celebrity marionettes to save the world in `Team America'

LOS ANGELES -- Apologies to Matt Damon.

The "South Park" guys, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, don't actually think he's an idiot. The opposite, in fact. But the look-alike they made to play him in their new, all-marionette movie didn't look quite right. The result: Matt Damon as moron, a standout of stupidity among the Hollywood liberals sent up on strings in "Team America: World Police."

As Parker explained, "Unfortunately for Matt, what happened was we got the puppets back and we were like, `That doesn't look like Matt Damon. He

looks retarded -- dude, he looks totally retarded. What are we going to do?' We're like, `Well, let's make him retarded. . . . I really do sort of despise Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn way more. It's just how the Matt Damon puppet turned out. So, sorry, Matt." Obviously, Parker and his college buddy/producing partner aren't too concerned with propriety. In person their humor is easygoing, if not quite adult. On film, without the constrictions of TV or a live cast, there's nothing they won't do for a laugh. "Team America" almost got the dreaded NC-17 rating

because of, yes, simulated puppet sex. The scene does smolder. It's also groan-inducingly uproarious. Apparently the marionette-on-marionette violence didn't bother the ratings board nearly as much. "I think we just truly are kind of filthy, offensive people," Stone said good-naturedly. "That's just the stuff we find funny, and ultimately you have to make a movie that makes you laugh."

As it spoofs almost every action film ever made, "Team America: World Police" tells the story of crime-fighting puppets out to save the world but oblivious to their own obnoxiousness (oops -- there go the Pyramids, much of Paris and the Panama Canal). Think Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster at one-third scale, since the puppets are just under 2 feet tall. There's something to amuse and offend everyone, regardless of personal taste or political persuasion.

Parker, 35, and Stone, 33, don't take sides in "Team America," mocking liberal and conservative impulses alike. In the end they do take a stance, in language far too filthy for a family publication. The gist: There are bad people and worse people, and wimps who need the former to protect them from the latter. "That's about as brave as we get with our politics," Stone said. (This despite the fact that they created a since-canceled TV sitcom called "That's My Bush," about a dimwitted president whose White House has the same problems as any sitcom household.)

Instead, they say their primary aim was to make the marionette movie of all time and to make it funny. Still, they hoped to say something about the emotions Americans have experienced post-9/11, as well as something about America's historic role -- wanted or not, right or wrong -- as watchman of the world. In the movie, an up-and-coming Broadway actor is recruited to the crack international team by a man who tells him the enemy is out to get him personally, that if he doesn't infiltrate a terrorist organization the world could end. The seriousness is of course set to country music.

"The movie is really about the emotions of being an American, where you're always confronted with foreign people who are like, `Why do you have to be the police of the world?' and then when America doesn't do something about some injustice in the world, they're like, `Why doesn't America do something?' " Stone said. "It's about the mixed feelings of pride and shame."

Added Parker, who directed the film, "It was the emotional politics that were interesting to us because it was something we could relate to. We don't know what the [expletive] is going on in Iraq. We've been making cartoons. We can tell you what we read in the paper, but unlike Alec Baldwin, we're not going to go on `Crossfire' and tell you what's going on in Iraq. What we do know is what it's all felt like and what we've all been through and that's what we tried to make a movie about."

The initial impulse, however, was more ha-ha than anything. The pair -- friends from the University of Colorado at Boulder who, in a now well-known story, were asked to create an animated Christmas card for a Hollywood executive's friends, which led to "South Park" in 1997 and Comedy Central cult status -- were inspired by the 1960s puppet classic "Thunderbirds." A puppet got shot and Stone and Parker both burst out laughing. They loved the way its arms flopped the way a puppet's would naturally flop. It was funny because it was a real figure rather than an animated one. "We were just like, `There's really something comedically there,' " Parker said.

Soon after they saw "Thunderbirds," they read that a script called "The Day After Tomorrow" had been sold. The big-budget movie, released earlier this year, turned global warming into an enemy. Dennis Quaid played a paleoclimatologist out to save the planet. "And we were like, `That's genius. That would be the best puppet movie ever made,' " Parker said. A parody was born.

But along with longtime writing partner Pam Brady, they wanted to play off more than the action-adventure genre. As Parker and Stone explain it, their goal was to use classical movie structure to not only parody movies but to point out that they were parodying those movies. In other words, the strings are visible. Just when the puppets threaten to seem too human, they do something -- jerk at an impossible angle or get stuck midmotion -- to remind viewers that they're not.

Meanwhile, they hit all the predictable plot points: second act that finds hero at rock bottom, forced to pass through the eye of the proverbial needle for redemption; a montage showing him learning everything he needs to know; a lovely love interest who's a fighter in her own right but still needs rescuing. The villain is North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, who brokers weapons of mass destruction, gets the Hollywood crowd to hold the heroes prisoner, and sets his loneliness to song. Musically, it's right on: Remember, "Blame Canada," from their 1999 movie "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut" was nominated for an Academy Award.

But puppets are a pain compared with animated youngsters with foul mouths. Except for July 4, Parker and Stone say they haven't had a day off all year. Stone in particular is pasty enough to prove it. But that's what it took to make a miniature world in which the attention to detail is startling. There are remote-control cars for the high-speed chases, hand-ground lenses for Kim Jong Il's specs, and wardrobe and weaponry that look authentic.

At every step, they hired top-notch help, from visual consultant David Rockwell (W Hotels) to cinematographer Bill Pope ("Spider-Man 2") to special effects supervisor Joe Viskocil ("Independence Day" and "Terminator"). To bring the puppets to life, they turned to the Chiodo brothers ("Elf," "Pee Wee's Big Adventure"), whose eponymous firm says its goal is to "bring fantastic characters to life." But they'd never encountered anything like "Team America."

Edward Chiodo called it unparalled among puppet movies. Each puppet had at least 10 strings. Motors in their heads controlled facial expressions. All told, they used 95 mechanical heads with changeable faces and 160 bodies to create more than 300 characters. And Parker didn't want them to move like marionettes typically move, with play-to-the-rafters gestures. He wanted them to move like humans. "There are some very subtle performances," Chiodo said.

"It was pretty intimidating," Charles Chiodo said. "The script was very funny but the scope was unbelievable. We were like, `You're out of your mind, but we're right there with you.' "

Only a week ago, they were still tinkering with "Team America," noting that every week "South Park" was in production, they made the noon Wednesday deadline by minutes. ("We didn't write our term papers the night of; we did it the morning of," Stone said. "Now we're still doing it, proving that you can do it and be successful.")

But he isn't bragging on his celebrity chops. By Hollywood standards, the two are low-key, although they work in that John Stamos is a pal and that George Clooney is a good guy. Matt Damon, too, meaning they've met them all. Then again, they know they may have burned bridges with "Team America." Ben Affleck has an entire song devoted to his inability to act. Janeane Garofalo, Samuel Jackson, and other actors die ugly deaths after being ridiculed for joining the antiwar effort, which is not to imply that Stone and Parker are prowar. They're just pro not pretending to know what they don't.

"We totally believe in everyone's right to their opinion and especially in an artist's right to make their movies and write their songs," Parker said. "But it's like, once you're on Larry King . . . it was just funny. We thought, `Let's put that in the movie.' "

Added Stone, "It's just ripping on the idea of celebrity. `We act in movies and therefore we know everything.' I don't know anything."

After a year of 16-hour days, they do know they need a break. Production on "South Park" starts up soon. They're under contract for this season and next. Then who knows. They promise they won't be doing the show at age 50, or once it reaches the end of its natural TV life. For now, they say they have no other puppet movie in them: no patience, no energy. Thankfully a puppet blown up is a puppet out of commission. And there was no skimping on firepower in "Team America." It's a true-to-form action movie, after all.

Lynda Gorov can be reached at lgorov@aol.com. 

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