This week, the big screen adaptation of South Park, South Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut, celebrates its 20th anniversary.
Debuting at the end of June 1999, the film was amongst the most controversial of a year filled with controversial but successful, MPAA R-Rated films. You had The Matrix, which had been an international hit months earlier, and was criticised for glorifying violence, especially after the tragic incidents at a Columbine. Nonetheless, it changed the scope of cinema, becoming one of the highest grossing R-Rated films of all time. Kubrick’s final film Eyes Wide Shut was controversial for the sexual content between its stars, a then married Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise. American Pie gained notoriety for its casual depiction of teenage sexuality, Fight Club for its violent content and The Blair Witch Project for its lo-fi production, that made it among the most profitable films of all time. It was a strong year for adult cinema to say the least.
And amongst them, there was this crudely animated comedy, based on the Comedy Central series that had premiered to plenty of its own controversy just two years earlier. And because of this, of all the films released that year, Bigger, Longer and Uncut seemed to be the most talked about from commentators in the lead up. People who hadn’t seen the film yet were already on TV decrying the film’s influence on children; the foul mouthed script having put the film on the path for a NC-17 rating. Such a rating would have prohibited any children from seeing the film, even with an adult. As history goes, the film did indeed get an NC-17 rating at first (as did Eyes Wide Shut), before the MPAA backpedaled and the film was released, unedited, with an R rating after contention from the film’s distributors Paramount.
The irony, of course, was that the film was about the very sort of outrage and censorship the film attracted in its leadup, in a deliberate move that parodied the very controversy the filmmakers – Trey Parker and Matt Stone – had expected. Notably, some of the more meta jokes may not have worked if the film had gotten an NC-17 rating. Because just like in the film, and the fictional Canadian film “Terrance and Phillip: Asses of Fire”, there were reports all over the world of underage kids sneaking into screenings without an adult (which the R rating requires, as does the MA15+ rating it gained in Australia).
Watching the film in 2019, where I caught the film screening uncensored at one in the morning on US Cable network IFC, it remains as crude, funny and poignant as it did when it was first released. The outrage culture remains as loud as ever – if not even more so as the “cancel” culture has become a voice of the PC community through social media, something which the TV series itself parodied last year with the #cancelsouthpark campaign for season 22. It’s actually hard to imagine that the film would be released today without the exact same controversy. Characters like Saddam Hussein date the film to its period, but most of the characters, and the script, help make the film timeless.
Though the outrage over foul language amidst the violence elsewhere was an exaggerated talking point, it wasn’t all hot air. The film did push the boundaries of taste and the R Rating. The film is reported to have “399 swear words, 128 offensive gestures, and 221 acts of violence”, which set Guinness World records for an animated film. The song “Uncle Fucka” alone contains 23 F bombs (and is one of the funniest in the film).
In the end, the film made a little more than US$80 million worldwide ($150+ million in 2019 dollars), making it the highest grossing R-Rated animated comedy of all time, a figure that wasn’t overtaken until Sausage Party was released in 2016 (it made US$140 million, which once you adjust the former for inflation actually sits just below South Park in box office sales). It was also a critical darling, currently sitting at 87% rotten tomatoes, as critics ignored 24 hour news commentators and highlighted the film’s surprisingly apt take on its own, predictable reception.
Largely forgotten at the time, too, was just how many celebrities made appearances in the film. The modern celebrity was someone the South Park creators had spent the prior years lambasting at just about every opportunity, to the point they had to precede the show by saying that the voices were just poor impersonations, and that no one should watch the show due to its content – a gag that continues to this day. So the caliber of the inclusions remains surprising. Amongst the guests were George Clooney, who played a hopeless Doctor that kills Kenny at the peak of his popularity on ER (he was notably departing that season, too). Minnie Driver played Brooke Shields, Mike Judge – creator of Beavis and Butthead – played an unmuffled Kenny (and served as a nod of appreciation to the creator of a show which served undoubtedly as inspiration for South Park). What you mightn’t remember is that Stuart Copeland from the band The Police is also in there, as is Dave Foley and Eric Idle.
Even after the film was released, and found increased popularity on home release, it still managed to be a talking point. In 2003, later it would finally be screened uncensored on Comedy Central, bringing an unheard of amount of expletives to the TV station, which these days places less censorship on the popular show. In 2000, the film received an Oscar nomination for its song “Blame Canada”, and in the weeks leading up to its performance, there was speculation on one, who would sing the song and two, whether or not they’d call Anne Murray a bitch. In the end, it was Robin Williams, and yes, he did sing the line (with pomp!). Surely at that point, those who hadn’t seen the film must have gone – “well that wasn’t that bad!?”, as the Canadian flag was thrown around on stage – and it made for one of the most memorable Oscars performances of all time, by one of our beloved comedians. And who can forget Matt and Trey dressing up as Bjork and Jennifer Lopez!?
Indeed, perhaps most incredible, at the heart of all this, the film was a musical, with music from a collaboration with Marc Shaiman (Hairspray). From the aforementioned “Blame Canada” to a pile of un-PC tracks like “Kyle’s Mom’s a Bitch”, “Uncle Fucka” and a personal favourite “It’s Easy, M’Kay”, where Mr Mackey suggests replacing the word “Shit” with “Poo” as in “this poo is cold” (who said toilet humour was dead), and “bitch” with “bich which stands for generosity”, the music was as funny and entertaining as it was beautifully orchestrated. They also did everything they could, amongst crude animation and expletives, to parody (and pay homage to) the great movie musicals – in particular Les Miserables – while somehow becoming one in its own right.
So successful was the endeavour that the clever, often hilarious film, paved the way for the duo – who had already released the D-Grade Cannibal – The Musical!, showing their love of the artform – to have the credentials needed to release their own Broadway musical, The Book of Mormon in 2011. Controversial for its own reasons, the Tony Award winning musical is one of the most successful of all time – and is currently enjoying performances in Australia. And as for Uncut, 20 years on, it remains a stand out moment from a period of cinema that saw plenty of groundbreaking, controversial moments. And honestly, no list of the greatest musical films of all time is complete without this one.
Since the film, as the show’s creators have aged, so too has the material matured. For someone like myself, who was too young to see the film when it was first released and had to wait a long six months for the home release (where I snuck in a viewing at a friend’s house), I’ve grown up with the show. With only one more season commissioned (so far), Matt and Trey have often said that they might return the series to the big screen at the end of the run – though at this stage they show no sign of slowing down.
They have taken the long form storytelling into the series, too, with multiple episode arches like Imaginationland (which was made into a home release movie), and entire seasons which have a singular narrative – something that started with season 19. They’ve also delivered two well received video games – The Stick of Truth and The Fractured But Whole. With narratives that thrive on referencing the world around them – politics and entertainment being their key points of parody and inspiration – they have no shortage of content to pull from. So while I for one hope there’s no end in sight for the series, I would love to see it return for a final bow on the big screen. Accompanied (of course) by all the controversy and incredible music that buoyed their 1999 classic to becoming one of the greatest movie musicals of all time.