South Park has always been a show about contrasts. On the one hand, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have loved to wallow in the infantile juvenilia that make a series about foul mouthed grade schoolers so much fun. It’s a combination of toilet humor and gross out gratuity that these men have truly mastered. But there is also the savvy, satiric side to their work, a clear cut social commentary conceit that often cuts to the very funny bone of otherwise sensitive, hot button issues. It’s why, unlike Seth McFarlane and other Family Guy pretenders, Parker and Stone remains solid comic geniuses. Clear proof of this exists in the three-part trilogy from Season 11 entitled Imaginationland. Turned into a direct-to-DVD “movie” by Paramount to capitalize on Park‘s continued success, it stands as one of the best things this animated anarchy has ever accomplished.
When fussy Eric Cartman bets cynical Kyle Broflovski that leprechauns do exist, the stakes are rather severe. If Cartman loses, he owes his nemesis $10. If Kyle loses, he must suck Eric’s balls - literally. When a mission into the local woods turns up one of the Irish imps, it looks like the wager is won. But the leprechaun was supposed to warn far off Imaginationland of a terrorist attack, and when he fails to arrive, Al-Qaida starts kicking fictional character ass. Unfortunately, the mayor of the whimsical region has just brought Park boys Stan Marsh, Jimmy Volmer, and Leopold “Butters” Storch for a visit. As Cartman continues his efforts to get Kyle to “pay up”, everyone but Butters escapes. He is used by the terrorists as a tool to open up the gates of the evil side of Imaginationland. In the meantime, the government gets a Stargate style idea to infiltrate the pretend place and put a nuke directly in the Islamic extremist’s way.
The premise is just as transcendent. The notion that terrorists have “infiltrated our imagination” and that, as a result of their actions, our “imaginations have run wild” resonates as so provocative and profound that it’s amazing no one has thought of it before. The added element of the evil entities provides a solid subtext, as it makes the viewer wonder, what’s worse - a suicide bomber or an unleashed Freddy Krueger. Al Gore gets another Manbearpig moment, and everyone’s favorite Satanic wildlife, the wicked Woodland Critters, show up to soil everything with their amoral attitude. Indeed, it is during these moments, the times when fuzzy little squirrels and cuddly little bunnies are suggesting abominable acts that Parker and Stone really shine.
The bawdy “B” story is equally redolent. Cartman’s obsession with his genitals may seem sick, but as the creators note on the almost full length audio commentary (the longest they’ve ever done, by their own admission), there is nothing sexual here. Instead, it’s all about power and humiliation. Even when our portly provocateur goes to great lengths to double entendre his way through a discussion of Kyle’s contractual obligation, he’s not out for jollies. Instead, it’s a moment of schoolyard triumph - undeniably severe, but like a Momma joke taken to a mouth to scrotum extreme. Parker and Stone want to shock. By doing so, they lay the perfect foundation for their more meaningful ideas.
And Imaginationland is chock full of them. From the government’s over the top reaction to the terrorist attack, to the conspiratorial plan that is supposed to save the day (even if underlings can’t stop giving away its secrets), we see a sensational slam on current US policy throughout. Everything in 2007/2008 is about reaction and armed response. Military lingo and rules of engagement dictate all of our diplomatic positions. When former Vice President Al Gore’s worst nightmare shows up, the baffled generals can only fall back on the atomic remedy. It’s a classic send-up, showing how out of touch with the rest of the world America really is. Even in a fictional domain, it can do little except pick a fight and bring in the big guns. Avoiding the heavy handed approach that most of their contemporaries take, Parker and Stone continue to be some of the best political satirists working today.
But that doesn’t mean Imaginationland lacks the requisite amount of animated awe. The battle scenes between the good and bad characters are excellent, especially when unexpected icons from the past (the Hawaiian Punch pitchman, He Man’s floating wizard buddy Orko) show up to tussle. Blood and cartoon body parts fly! This is the kind of experience one can revisit again and again, seeing something new in each and every viewing. Even better, the provided commentary traces the show’s origins, answers questions about its structure, and suggests that Parker and Stone are equally adept at producing great work both under intense deadlines and when they have plenty of time on their hands. Paramount even tosses in a couple of complementary episodes (“Manbearpig” and “Woodland Critter Christmas”) to make the presentation complete.
With Season 12 just underway, and the series signed up through 2011, here’s hoping our duo has more amazing installments like Imaginationland up their sleeves. As they’ve said in the past, they love to play with the show’s format, finding equal time to let their characters be kids while tackling the major issues of the day. As a pristine example of this mindset, the three part extravaganza stands as one of South Park‘s best. For something that no one thought would or could last this long, Trey Parker and Matt Stone are proving that, just like a certain yellow skinned family from Springfield, the boys of a certain backwater Colorado town could be around for a very, very long time.