[30 September 2005]
In the now entirely glutted market of cartoons designed for adults, it’s an accomplishment that a Mad Hatter curveball like Family Guy has not only survived but thrived. Where The Simpsons has become as edgy as The Cosby Show, Family Guy remains relentlessly tasteless and unhinged. If South Park celebrates childish petulance at its feces-throwing worst, then Family Guy dotes on precocious, truth-speaking adolescence. More carefully coded than its competitors, it rewards viewers for “getting it,” using references so out of nowhere that only the most devoted pop-culture junkies can decipher every line.
Stewie Griffin: The Untold Story strings together three unaired episodes and interrupts them with a the characters attending a premiere, complaining during an intermission, and attending a raucous after party. Termed a “movie,” this mix wisely focused on Stewie (voiced by Seth MacFarlane), the diabolical and meglomanical baby of the Griffin clan. I say “wisely” because Stewie is the show’s funniest, sharpest cultural critic, functioning much as the old men in the Muppet balcony. I wouldn’t say that The Untold Story has a plot so much as an opportunity to lampoon as many Hollywood clichés as possible in a single movie.
The saga begins as Stewie has a near-death experience that prompts an existential crisis. Thanks to a TiVo-related viewing accident, Stewie spots a man in a travel show about San Francisco who looks like he could be his father. He and Brian (MacFarlane again) tag along on Quagmire’s (also MacFarlane) cross-country, bang-a-chick-in-every-state road trip to discover if the man on television is, in fact, Stewie’s dad. The “quest” plot, however, is only a point of departure. The movie is a slash-and-burn skewer of time travel epics, replete with MacFarlane’s typically ingenious subversions and surrealities. Much of Stewie’s time-continuum meddling focuses on insuring that he ends up with a non-retail job and a more tastefully decorated apartment. This is not 12 Monkeys.
The feature-length format exposes some weaknesses in the Family Guy formula. MacFarlane’s sense of humor is frenetically parenthetical, so that every line acts as a hyperlink to some other insane aside. Here his cracked-glass sense of narrative becomes slightly tiresome. You begin to count the breakaway cues: the phrases “Remember the time,” “Like that time” or “Not as bad as that time” interrupt the story to the point of its erasure.
But MacFarlane has never been strong on characterization. Apart from Stewie, the family members range from absolute knock-offs like Peter Griffin (voiced by MacFarlane and borrowing from Homer Simpson) to characters so thinly sketched (Meg, voiced by Mila Kunis) that they’re only an assembly of self-referential jokes. Likewise, the stories in any given episode aren’t particularly memorable, since they’re usually just stepping stones for the tangent punchlines.
MacFarlane’s true talent is the equivalent of the pop song mash-up, improbable juxtapositions of artistically distant tracks resulting in wonderful kismet collisions. Some of the best moments Untold Story come from his jaded aids of the cultural detritus of his childhood. Lion-O (Larry Kenney), from The Thundercats, uses the Sword of Omens to spy on Cheetara (Lynne Lipton) taking a piss, Stewie kills his friend Casper (as in, the friendly ghost), who returns as a pudgy wraith but doesn’t mind because he was going to kill himself anyway, and in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, the silly wabbit (Noel Blanc, son of Mel) is blown into bloody buckshot bits. These snippets only begin to indicate the many ways MacFarlane can pull hilarity from the usual corruption-of-innocence storyline.
Stewie Griffin: The Untold Story doesn’t disappoint, exactly. But it does linger too long. Apart from making a crack about Roger Moore as a pedophile and Condoleeza Rice as a drug-using lesbian radical in college, it was hard to notice the tasty promises of the “outrageous” and “uncensored” material exclaimed on the DVD box. Still, one of MacFarlane’s bulls-eyes is worth a dozen of his misses. And now you have the chance to watch the film repeatedly, to break it into increments, to pick out every nuance. His wicked mix of insane obscurity and hilarious obscenity never wears out its welcome.