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South Park: Imaginationland

Paramount/South Park Studios/Comedy Central (October 2007), Paramount Home Entertainment (March 11 2008), single disc, 68 mins plus supplements, 1.33:1 original full frame ratio, Dolby Digital 5.1 Stereo Surround, Not Rated (Canadian 14A), Retail: $19.99

Storyboard:

As close as we’re likely to get to a Bigger, Longer And Uncut sequel, the boys of South Park are back to tackle an unusual kind of terrorism in this three-episode TV special.

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The Sweatbox Review:

TV-on-DVD has become a big business, with “best of” compilations giving way to much preferred full season sets, a previously unexplored market (save for Paramount’s continuous flogging of their various Star Trek franchises) that’s seen terrific growth as we all run out to add the shows we used to love (and usually aren’t always as good as we remember)! The Hollywood studios are always searching for a new angle on any given niche, and more recently we’ve seen the rise of the direct-to-video movie and specific releases of selected television episodes. Many of these projects are created with future TV or DVD release in mind (think Family Guy’s plundering of the DVD market, only for the “exclusive movie” to turn up as separate episodes on TV) or offer a way to make a quick buck (think Family Guy again, with their Star Wars spoof Blue Harvest) by bringing out a special before a season has run its course. Well done, then, to Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who debuted their three-episode Imaginationland trilogy special on Comedy Central first, and now offer it as an official DVD release. Try before you buy perhaps?

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There’s a little of the exclusivities going on with this release: it’s a “Director’s Cut”, and for once one that does stray from its regular release (in this case, the TV version). Although most scenes are almost indistinguishable from the original broadcasts, apart from the occasional outrageous extra line, the horrific killing of a much-loved children’s icon or the uncensored non-bleeping of strong language (as well as a few snips here and there), it’s clear even from the opening that there’s been some extensive recompositing, for whatever reason, with some characters placed in different positions on screen (not always as successfully) and even in odd configurations (Kyle is seen sitting on a log at the beginning of the TV version, on the DVD he’s standing in front of it, with no potential gain in the change). Other shots present a little more left and right, with minor cropping top and bottom compared to the TV showings, while other moments seem to simply mask what was shown on television to create a wider framing. Very, very strange…

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The premise is that Butters, that questionably behaved young lad who often drifts off into flights of fancy, literally does fly off to the land of our collective imagination, where all the non-existent created characters of folklore, books, films, games – and even corporate branding – live in harmony, with the happy folk living one side of a great wall, and the villains residing on the other. When terrorists attack, the villains break through and threaten to destroy Imaginationland and, thereby extension, our own inventive minds as well! Of course, while all this is going on, Eric Cartman has much more important – and highly personal – goals to accomplish and sets out on a mission to relieve himself from decidedly dry balls. It’s a vastly amusing idea, and often outrageously played, but contrary to some claims of these three episodes being among the best ever put out in the series’ now ten-year history, they just aren’t very funny, coming over as regurgitations of other ideas already explored in South Park or as oddly obvious targets for such a usually erudite program. It seems that, in their attempts to sledgehammer their points home, Parker and Stone, for once and very rarely, forgot to put in their usually very clever humor or jokes.

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It could be that I was just awed by Imaginationland itself: it’s an amazing place, drawn from all areas of mainly popular culture, and populated by carbon copies of characters so blatant that I’m surprised there hasn’t been a lot of fallout from these shows. When Ronald McDonald appears on screen trying, Saving Private Ryan-style, to locate his blown-off arm, I’m sorry, but that’s none other than Ronald McDonald looking for his arm on screen, and no-one else. Remember the Sherry Bobbins pastiche on The Simpsons? Think of that, but without the irony or side-stepping. Anyone who’s anyone from the filmmakers’ generation of popular characters (which would place me firmly in the group ready to recognise most of them) has been caricatured and placed in Imaginationland. While it’s astonishing, it’s quite overwhelming too: as much as I was following what was going on, I was continually raising my eyebrows as to just how close – sometimes even as good as using the originals – Matt and Trey dared to tread in their depictions.

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It’s really here that Imaginationland hits home, especially with its often extravagant (for South Park!) animated action sequences, though it’s not devoid of jokes, of course – South Park never is and could never be – and there are time of the usual brilliance, especially with Cartman’s proclamation that Kyle will perform a deviant act on him that touches on the show’s reputation for pushing things over the edge. There’s also the truly inspired opening that sees Kyle get himself into that sticky spot with Cartman, highlighted by the absolutely classic realisation that Leprechauns (yes, South Park’s comical grasp of the truly random is still greatly in effect) do exist. But a good deal of Imaginationland seems a little subdued under the weight of its fantastical central idea and eventual execution, not reaching the expected heights of Bigger, Longer And Uncut or the genius of Team America: World Police, with which it shares much in common.

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Presented as a “DVD Movie”, the three episodes run together as one, though they retain their hysterical per-episode titles, linked by material that presumably earns the Director’s Cut tag, and as such this could well be the only place to catch it in this configuration. It does work better taken in one sitting; the pacing is more attuned to a single experience and is preferable to how it played on TV and will presumably eventually turn up in a season box set. If this had been released as an extended theatrical outing, I get the feeling that fans might well have been disappointed. Thankfully, and for all their overabundances, Parker and Stone know when to cut back, and as a TV special and DVD release, Imaginationland provides more of what we love South Park for. After all, where else can you see Popeye square off against Darth Maul, and Mickey Mouse’s head quite literally being blown off by a Cylon?

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Is This Thing Loaded?

Despite being labelled as “Feature-Length”, even as a Director’s Cut, Imaginationland only clocks in at just over a three-episode length of 68 minutes (instead of the 65 listed on the cover), so making up for that we’re treated to a number of extras that bump up the points and make this single release worthwhile. A handful of previews – for Lil’ Bush: Season One Uncensored, South Park: Complete Tenth Season and Drawn Together: Season Two – open up the disc.

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Chief among the extras specifically tied to Imaginationland is a almost full-length commentary with Matt and Trey, the first time, as far as I am aware, that they’ve sat through entire episodes of their show since the very first season came to DVD. Stone and Parker are always worth listening to, in whatever mood they’re in, and it’s clear these guys know their trade, what their targets are, and how to hit them with maximum force. What at first seemed to me to be a glitch – the South Park theme often begins to play over the pair’s chat – is revealed to be what I had guessed: that the music is covering up moments in the discussion when the pair digress into questionable comments that would be deemed too close to the mark. I guess I should have played the track from the beginning (hey, I went back and did that anyway!), in which this concept is set up with some amusing asides involving Tom Cruise.

It’s a great track, even if it does only last for only 50 or so of the feature’s nearly 70 minutes, placing emphasis on the changes between this Director’s edition and the original TV airings, though there’s a lot more chat about the show itself, some amusing asides on how the episodic trilogy should be presented on disc (go Kurt Russell!), well-observed theses on the careers of M Night Shyamalan and Mel Gibson, and the technical processes and thought that goes into making this apparently cheap and rough looking program look so cheap and rough looking. Apparently, there was early talk of making this a theatrical South Park movie sequel, which it almost does feel like, but I’m glad they ultimately felt it didn’t quite stretch to the big screen, much for the same reasons I felt too.

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A handful of deleted moments are described in the commentary, but unfortunately those aren’t offered in any form, though we do get a couple of other Storyboards for two scenes. Presented as with the original show airings, in 4:3, these two scenes use the completed production audio and differ only very slightly from what was eventually animated. Kyle’s back on his log in the beginning of the show, we still hear little Jimmy’s extraordinary – and uncensored – vocal shock at seeing a Leprechaun, and there’s a quick intro to one imaginary character that was saved for later in the final cuts. Not essential or preferable to the deleted scenes mentioned in the commentary, but interesting nonetheless.

Also shown as the show airs in 4:3 are two bonus episodes: Woodland Critter Christmas and Manbearpig. The first, a demented spin on Dr Seuss-styled Rankin/Bass holiday specials, is a season eight show from a couple of years ago, ultimately fairly redundant to long time fans, being a triple dip having not only turned up in that season set but as a selection on the recent Christmas In South Park compilation too. Manbearpig is more recent, coming from the show’s tenth season, and is as hilarious as they come. Since both shows feature characters that turn up in the Imaginationland trilogy and are cited as being favorites by their creators in the feature’s commentary, they make for appropriate inclusions, even if one might wish something a little more exclusive or special had been packed in.

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Case Study:

Really giving this release some extra-added class is a bespoke slipcover that does a lot more than slips usually do. The front is essentially one giant cut out, allowing the front cover sleeve art to promote itself fully. On the reverse, the slip outlines the feature, lists the bonuses and tech specs under an image of a much besieged Butters being chased by the legions of doom, unleashed from behind Imaginationland’s dividing wall. What one might expect to find underneath is the same thing, but uniquely, the back of the sleeve itself presents a stunning portrayal of the hideously deformed monstrosity Manbearpig emerging from the Imaginationland Stargate, devoid of any other distractive text. The textless imaging stretches to the disc art, with only Butters and the required corporate logos adorning the platter. Nice touches, elevating the overall feel of the release into something greater than the sum of its parts.

Ink And Paint:

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A minor disappointment is that Imaginationland is presented in good old 4:3 video – letterboxed from a widescreen 16:9 frame! South Park is created for television with its creators remaining resolutely square in this otherwise 16:9 televisual world. That’s something of a slight aggravation – it’s no great shakes, but the jump to a matted wider format for this more epic than usual story undoubtedly sells the DVD Movie badge a little more authentically. Making it harder to gauge the differing framing from the 4:3 TV version is that some scenes have been recomposited intentionally for the wider framing, so it’s even more annoying that this hasn’t also been 16:9 enhanced. Essentially, in an attempt to make Imaginationland look as “movie-like” as can be, all that seems to have been done for the most part is to mask off top and bottom – an odd choice in itself without going the whole hog and enhancing the image for widescreen displays. On the plus side, as one would hope for and expect, there’s nothing to complain about the interlaced transfer’s other aspects: digitally created and given plenty of room to breathe on disc, this is as good as South Park looks.

Scratch Tracks:

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South Park, for a while now, has been a fairly intensely mixed show, heavy on the sound effects since the movie came along in the late 1990s and upped the production value all around. The good work by the sound guys continues here, and although these tracks were originally created for television, you’d be hard pressed to distinguish them from high-end blockbuster fare. That’s part of the joke, of course, and much of South Park’s knowing charm, but it pays off when passing off three TV episodes as a movie release because the audio is just so packed with excessive, and often downright bizarre, sounds. Oddly, we’re given two choices: a Stereo track as broadcast, and a Dolby 5.1 Surround, which I presume is fresh for the DVD, but there’s little difference in fidelity between them and both offer up big fun!

Final Cut:

I’m expecting the three individual versions of the Imaginationland trilogy to turn up divided into their three separate parts when this season of the show arrives on DVD in full, and I would suspect that the specific storyboard and commentary extras here might well be omitted from that set. Don’t blame me if I’m wrong, but for hardcore fans of the show (you know who you are!), this edition is the one to go for if you got a kick out of this story, and the differences between the two are enough to warrant a double dip. Though the high scales of Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s razor-sharp wit seem to have been clipped in part here, there’s still a lot to enjoy (and, yes, think about) – particularly the title environment. This is where Imaginationland perhaps strikes hardest and most successfully, and even though this didn’t seem premium Park to me, freeze framing will come in mighty handy in picking out an extraordinary number of outrageous character parodies, which the boys attack with knowing bite and their usual uncompromising satirical savagery.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

MAIN FEATURE
SUPPLEMENTS
VIDEO IMAGE
SOUND TRACK
OVERALL DVD

 

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