We critics love to throw around terms like “revisionist” and “deconstruction”. We do it mostly out of a lack of appropriate adjectives. When something comes along that defies easy description, that takes an established genre or film type and turns it on its celluloid skull, we become instantly devoid of ways to explain it. The above motion picture modifiers are merely short cuts, buzz words we’ve built along the road toward reviewing. They don’t always accurately reflect the situation we’re extolling, but then again, it’s better than being at a loss for any words. So when you read that the latest TV cartoon to make the jump to the big screen – Adult Swim’s sensational Aqua Teen Hunger Force – is a deconstruction of standard animation and a revisionist view of what a movie is actually comprised of, it’s time to take out that shaker of sensibleness salt.
To try and clarify the purpose and plot of this insanely surreal pen and ink performance art, you really have to understand and fully appreciate the actual series. Crafted by former staff members of the incredibly popular Space Ghost Coast to Coast as kind of a Saturday morning superhero spoof, the Aqua Teens are a mystery solving service consisting of three anthropomorphized fast food fixtures - an arrogant dairy product (known as Master Shake), an intelligent order of French fried potatoes (called Frylock), and a slightly dopey ball of beef (who goes by the handle Meatwad). Though their origins are inconsistent at best, (there’s something to do with a time traveling evil Abe Lincoln), they’ve now found themselves renting a house in South New Jersey. There, they make neighbor Carl Brutananadilewski’s life a living Hell while warding off the uninspired extraterrestrial villainy of the Mooninites (Ignignokt and Err) and the Plutonians (Oglethorpe and Emory). Initially the Force made their way as ersatz crimefighters, taking on such bottom rung cases as Internet scamming leprechauns and diet pill pyramid schemer (and substandard rapper) MC Pee Pants.
For the big screen, little has changed. Carl buys an InsanoFlex home gym at a yard sale, which Shake steals almost immediately. Unable to assemble the device, the giant beverage uses it as a laundry rack. Frylock finally figures out the complicated instructions, and once put together, the Force allows their annoyed neighbor first shot at a workout. Turns out, the machine is actually a complicated alien apparatus bent on taking over the world. It traps Carl in an endless cycle of exercise while systematically destroying the Earth. Naturally, this draws the attention of the opportunistic Mooninites and the braindead Plutonians. Apparently, the prophetic Cybernetic Ghost of Christmas Past (a previous Force foe) wants the space spuds to steal the gadget, though its motives are ambiguous at best. In the meantime, Frylock is convinced this entire matter has something to do with the Aqua Teen’s birth, and they travel back to the lab of Dr. Weird and his assistant Steve (regulars from the first two seasons of the show) to get some answers. Oh, and they try to stop the InsanoFlex as well.
Did any of that make sense? Don’t worry, it doesn’t need to. The best thing about Aqua Teen Hunger Force is its ‘anything for a laugh’ approach to humor. This is a true comedic casserole, a jaunty junk food amalgamation of satire, slapstick, gross out, farce, spoof, lampoon, scatology, and the droll. Characters combine both the best and worst elements of individual eccentricity, juxtaposing the amoral and the amiable into a frequently indecipherable stew of deranged dopiness. All three main members of the Force are funny in their own right, but its Shake and Meatwad who frequently steal the show. Our ball of minced flesh is a shapeshifting retard, capable of occasional insights, but mostly wallowing in his own single digit IQ-uity. On the other hand, Shake is sensationally selfish, pushed beyond the boundaries of arrogance and entitlement to the point of ridiculous egotism. He believes all the Aqua Teen hype, though he’s completely incapable of living up to any realistic reputation.
It’s a credit to creators Dave Willis and Matt Maiellaro (and voice actors Casey Means and Dana Snyder) that such out of bounds oddness never fully blows a fuse. Oh sure, the Aqua Teen series can occasionally be so whacked out and insular that only the most devoted of fans can follow it, but there is never a lack of laughs. Similarly, the movie begins with a bang (a fantastic send up of the “Let’s All Go the Lobby” animation from years past) and never really lets up. It’s like Airplane! without the disaster movie premise, or a Farrelly Brothers film without the grating reliance on the vile. Granted, it can be very crude (Carl’s single minded focus on females and sex) and lacking substance or subtlety (excessive violence is often used to underscore a standard slapstick gag), but the men behind this mania have managed to forge a wholly unique and complete universe, one where their brazen disregard for the standards of storytelling doesn’t really matter. It’s a fractured mindset that carries over to the film’s Hellsapoppin’ approach, and the recently released two disc DVD.
Which brings us back to those two tentative words – deconstruction and revisionist. Almost dadaesque in their view of entertainment, it is safe to say that the overall idea expressed by the series, as filtered through Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters and Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters for DVD, is as close to post-modern art as talking foodstuffs can get. It’s a reflective conceit, one that touches individual audience members differently. Some can see Shake as a misunderstood hero while others cringe at his “me first” meanness. Carl can come across as a libidinous tool, but he’s actually a genius representation of the stodgy sub-urban male. Frylock frequently changes mannerism (and sexual gender), simply as a way of illustrating intelligence’s endless ability to cope with the crackpot. And Meatwad is every mother’s son, a baby born without a lot of smarts or common sense, but when need be, he will literally modify his makeup to save the day…sort of.
Such randomness requires a viewer willing to let the movie work on its own terms. If forced into a formulaic hole, Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters comes off as indecipherable and incongruous. Several sequences make little or no sense, and the sudden appearance of characters who disappear within a matter of a few scenes are nothing more than shout-outs to the long time devotee. Newcomers will feel overwhelmed, unable to comprehend what makes this hapless Happy Meal so supposedly clever. But as with any TV to movie transition, context is crucial. Anyone who has been with the series since the beginning, or picked it up before the big screen bow, will definitely get more out of this than someone seeking a mere Saturday night rental. While patience can be rewarded, persistence pays off in much larger deranged dividends. But this is not a fan’s only release. Instead, it’s a challenge to anyone who’s sick and tired of traditional animated anarchy.
While not as salient as The Simpsons or South Park, the Aqua Teen Hunger Force and its Colon Movie Film for Theaters is a bright, baffling companion piece to our equally infuriating times. Real life makes absolutely no sense, and like a clairvoyant cousin cackling in the background, Shake, Frylock, and Meatwad mock your lack of vision. They’ve seen the situation, the shoddy manner in which existence doles out drama like inconsiderate service industry workers, and have decided to deal with its absurdity and surreality. It may be nothing more than an insightful peek into the mind of a messed up 13 year old, or the most clever cartoon satire ever. That’s the great thing about Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters. It’s everything and nothing, clever and/or crap. It doesn’t demand either one. It let’s you make such a decision.