Somewhere along the line, animated films forgot how to be fun. Instead of catering to their intended audience with every demographically determined pop culture quip a bevy of writers could think up, or stretching the limits of legitimate storytelling within a pliable pen and ink (or computerized) domain, cartoons were once crazy, chaotic and just plain cool. We celebrated every daffy diversion a certain duck had to offer, and cheered as a careless coyote once again saw his roadrunner-revised plans implode spectacularly – and usually in his face.
But today, the Hellaspoppin’ hand drawn paradigm has been replaced with “very special episode” like examples of the CG slick genre. Pixar mixes enough melancholy into their infinite madness that you often wonder if you’re still watching comedy, while Dreamworks and the makers of Shrek go so overboard in the buffoonery department that their efforts feel like one big photorealistic fart joke. That’s where something like Terkel in Trouble comes in. Made in Denmark by artists free to connect directly to their hilarious hedonistic Id, the results prove that not every example of foreign family filmmaking has to be a miserable, misguided experience (right Donkey X?).
Our story centers around Terkel, a dweebish nerd at a typical middle school. Harassed and hounded by Sten and Saki, a pair of rather passive if perverted bullies, he finds solace in his best friend Jason, the led pipe his pal always carries around, and American rap music, which they both adore unabashedly. When their teacher dies in a freak accident, a suspicious substitute enters into the picture. A devout nature nut, he makes the class take a field trip to a nearby forest to study salamanders. In the meantime, Terkel is feeling guilty over another unexplained death. A fat girl named Doris confessed her love to our hero, and his rejection sends her reeling…and right out the window of their fourth story classroom. With his mates thinking he’s a cold-blooded (and hearted) killer, Terkel is going to have a hard time making it through the rest of Sixth grade.
Like South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut by way of Copenhagen, or old school Looney Tunes after doing one too many bong hits, Terkel in Trouble is terrific. The brainchild of stand-up comic Anders Matthesen (who provides all the voices for the characters), this warped view of childhood as a determined Death Race is witty, weird, and just a bit on the warped side. Sure, for the most part, Matthesen (by way of directors Kresten Vestbjerg Andersen, Thorbjørn Christoffersen, and Stefan Fjeldmark and co-writer Mette Heeno) is merely riffing on the realities of growing up in our prickly post-modern society. But instead of emotional angst and psychological scarring, we get basic vulgarity and lots of ultraviolence.
Within the span of 15 minutes, two of the movie’s main characters are dead. Later on, Terkel finds himself in a Friday the 13th-esque life or death struggle to survive his camping field trip. Throughout, a bilious character named Uncle Stuart hands out horrid advice that would better be given to convicted felons, and hip-hop racial profiling is rampant. With one CG foot in the gutter and the other singing and dancing it’s ass off (oh, did we forget to mention that this is a musical?) Terkel in Trouble traipses the fine line between good and bad taste…and then finally decides to trash the whole thing and go for the groin. This is wicked, wonderfully offensive stuff, made even more memorable by the inclusive of songs whose lyrics rival anything created by Trey Parker and Matt Stone.
Of course, the storytelling suffers somewhat. There are parts of Terkel in Trouble that probably require a knowledge of the material or the players beforehand (Matthesen has been working with these characters for years – sometimes in his act, and even on CD) and the rapid fire approach can get confusing to someone not very well versed in Danish. Of course, there’s a mandatory English translation that helps with some of the subtext, but for the most part, Terkel in Trouble is in the business of shock and scatology, and as they say, business-is-a-booming! Yes, there is still the coming of age angle which keeps things grounded. But by the end, we’re too busy counting up the cross references to care.
In fact, if there is one downfall to this otherwise delightful chaos, it’s the reliance of various humorous homages that few if any will be able to understand. Some are specific to the country of origin. Others feel like failed interpretations of obvious Western works. Most occur during the otherwise sensational songs, where the montages must maintain a forward motion while illustrating the finer points of the parody. As we giggle at the subtitled lyrics, we often scratch our heads over the almost recognizable allusions. There appear to be hints of The Beatles (especially Yellow Submarine), The Simpsons, and the Comedy Central series that appears to be Terkel‘s biggest inspiration.
Which is a very good thing, because just like that celebrated Colorado cavalcade of crudeness, Terkel in Trouble functions on several sensational levels. Yes, it’s rude and often repellent. Certainly it suffers from a quirky sense of juvenilia which often hurts its more insightful elements. If it could, it would wallow in the kind of incessant toilet humor that marks many of today’s underage attractions. It is absolutely sidesplitting at times, the cartooning cracking you up as much as Matthesen’s many jokes. And the art design and CG look is something very unique and elastic, resembling a Plasticman family reunion on mescaline. Unlike other foreign films that try to mimic Hollywood’s hackneyed style (and fail), Terkel in Trouble forges its own unique approach. It’s a mannerism that makes – and sometimes breaks – this flashback to the days when cartoons were surreal…and sensational.