For more than 10 years, masters of social satire Trey Parker and Matt Stone have filled nearly every episode of their hallowed South Park with countless smirking allusions to pop culture. They’re not picky, stealing from television, movies, books, songs, politicians and celebrities that they love, hate to love and love to hate.
This compulsion has never been more prevalent than in Imaginationland, a trilogy that aired as three separate episodes last season and which is now available uncut and uncensored on DVD. The disc boasts the first-ever South Park commentary from Parker and Stone, who cite the trilogy’s complex plot as a parody amalgam of Harry Potter, Stargate and 24, with subtle jabs at Gladiator, Saving Private Ryan and The Abyss. The reason the duo gets away so successfully with such pop pilfering is that they’ve established themselves as critics and commentators as opposed to lazy regurgitators and star-struck revisionists. They take other people’s work, force it through their ideological meat grinder and expose it.
Imaginationland starts with another cockeyed Cartman scheme, this time to locate and trap a leprechaun, much to the chagrin of Kyle, who bet Cartman that leprechauns don’t exist. If Kyle loses, he has to, ahem, suck Cartman’s balls. A leprechaun does show up and with a most unusual warning: There will be a terrorist attack. The trilogy falls short only in that it fails to use such a ripe platform to comment on Iraq, torture and the Bush administration, even when the cards appear to line up for it. In this case, the creative duo seems to have decided that sheer parody is more important than intellectual subtext.
The terrorist attack in question is not aimed at any real place but at Imaginationland, aka our collective imagination, where all the creatures of popular culture and mythology reside. It’s not long after we’re reacquainted with inhabitants the likes of Charlie Brown, the Ninja Turtles, Santa Claus and Ronald McDonald that a group of Islamic terrorists bombs Imaginationland, creating a tableau of carnage so violent it’s surprising that it aired on TV. The episode concludes with the terrorists using the character Rockety Rocket to puncture the wall dividing the evil side of the imagination – with figures such as the Predator, Freddy Krueger and Frankenstein – from the good side.
With the human imagination in peril, it’s only natural that the government gets involved, unveiling an Area 51–like secret facility in which a portal into the imagination is being finalized. When a trip to invade Imaginationland via the portal by Kurt Russell (hence the Stargate parody) fails miserably and hysterically, the only hope is on Butters, of all people. In episode three, Butters becomes a Harry Potter/Neo type, an unlikely entity destined to save the universe.
The third spoof, 24, manifests itself in the trilogy’s B-plot, which gradually becomes its A-plot: Like Jack Bauer, Cartman stops at nothing to achieve his goal, in this case forcing Kyle, by a verdict from the United States court system, to draw succulently on his testicles for no less than 30 seconds. The more Kyle weasels away, the more Cartman pursues; the plight of our imagination will have to wait.
Parker and Stone already took on six installments of 24 in the “Snuke” episode of South Park, but setting aside the issue of creative redundancy, the main problem with Imaginationland is the lack of coherent political insight. The duo’s fierce libertarian views and politically incorrect skewering of all sides of the partisan spectrum has led them to ascend from crude enfants terribles to credible sociopolitical barometers. There’s even a book, South Park Conservatives: The Revolt Against Liberal Media Bias (Regnery Publishing, 2005) by Brian C. Anderson, that theorizes an upstart conservatism in the show’s satire.
With their first animated movie, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999), Parker and Stone made a film calculated to be as offensive as possible as part of a profound argument against censorship. And the creators proved they are at their best when marrying political leanings with spot-on parody. Their film Team America: World Police (2004) is both a composite of the testosterone-oozing blockbusters of Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich and a thoughtful criticism of American hubris, the isolationist foreign policies of the Bush administration and Hollywood’s legion of armchair liberals. Similarly, in the South Park episode “Two Days After the Day After Tomorrow” (2005), they satirize Emmerich’s turkey The Day After Tomorrow while making a relevant argument against the unproductive finger-pointing that was rampant in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
The only message delivered in the hour-plus Imaginationland is a defense of fantasy. As the government plans to nuke Imaginationland, Kyle makes a case that heroes like Luke Skywalker, Superman and Jesus Christ are more real to us, and hold more meaning to us, than the people we meet in everyday life. Considering that South Park has long found the most accessible and yet scholarly ways to remind us of our problems, Imaginationland dodges profundity in its embrace of the inherent joys of escapism.
Parker and Stone confirm this observation in the commentary that’s included on the new release. They discuss revising the politically charged early drafts of these episodes to bring down the politics and bring up the ball-sucking jokes. And the reason that the first third of the trilogy is more focused than what follows is that parts Two and Three were being written and animated as Part One was being broadcast. Parker and Stone admit to having been uncertain of the trilogy’s direction, and it shows.
At least Parker and Stone, who have been reluctant to record commentaries in the past because they never felt that they had enough to say, provide listeners with a glimpse into their creative process; for sheer laughs, the episodes are worth your viewing time. It’s just a shame that for a feature almost as ambitious in budget, scope and allegorical possibilities as Bigger, Longer & Uncut, when it comes to a cohesive message, Imaginationland sucks balls.