The animated TV show South Park was the big sensation of the 1997-98 season -- or at least as big a hit as a cable channel like Comedy Central can manage. It was almost inevitable that creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone would take their batch of foul-mouthed eight-year-olds to the big screen. (If such things were completely inevitable, we would have seen a Simpsons feature by now.)

The pair's earlier feature collaborations (Cannibal!: The Musical and Orgazmo) were spotty but often hilarious. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut is also spotty, but it has a higher hit-to-miss ratio. It is almost exactly what the film version of a TV show is supposed to be: true to the original, but somehow bigger and more spectacular.

It may sound absurd to use the word "spectacular" in relation to South Park, which has always flaunted the childlike crudeness of its animation. But spectacle is precisely what Parker and Stone have added here: more songs, real special effects, and, of course, great dollops of the language that gets bleeped on TV. (Presumably almost all the TV bleeps are the work of the creators, not of the network; Parker and Stone have gotten terrific mileage out of the bleep itself as a source of humor.)

The double-entendre title has an extra level of irony, since, while the film is bigger and longer, it is not precisely uncut. The MPAA ratings-board members sent it back with an NC-17 more than once before it was finally trimmed to their satisfaction.

If any movie ever went out of its way to snare the ratings board into a litigation trap, it's this one. The story itself is about movie ratings; the MPAA is mentioned by name (far from favorably) and the board must have acted with extreme care not to appear personally vindictive in their actions here. The movie also deals with the utterly unproved and probably unprovable conventional wisdom about what children should and shouldn't see. There has been a record amount of moralizing whizzing through the ether since the Columbine shootings, and given South Park's Colorado setting and its history of pushing the boundaries of tastelessness, it must have taken painful restraint for the filmmakers to avoid making reference to that other Colorado town.

South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut opens with "Mountain Town," an Oklahoma-like production number in which little Stan Marsh sings an entirely inaccurate paean to his hometown. Soon Stan and his buddies (Kyle, the lonely Jew; selfish, "big-boned" Eric Cartman; and the eternally incomprehensible and doomed Kenny) con their way into the local movie theater to watch Asses of Fire, the new epic from Canadian TV stars Terrance and Phillip, whose entire shtick is made up of farting and obscene insults. ("Phillip, you pig-fucker!" "Why did you call me a pig-fucker, Terrance?" "Well, first of all, because you fuck pigs.")

Not surprisingly, the kids emerge spouting even more foul words than previously, shocking and infuriating teachers and parents. In no time Kyle's irritating, do-gooder mother has launched a national campaign against Terrance and Phillip in particular, and all of Canada in general. This culture war quickly escalates into an actual war, with the parents embracing mass carnage and violence in their crusade to protect their innocent children from the hideous threat of potty-mouth.

At the same time, Satan and his new lover, the recently deceased Saddam Hussein, are having relationship difficulties, even as they plan to surface during the war and take over the Earth for a millennium's worth of evil. Luckily Kenny, killed during a misbegotten baked potato/heart transplant, is around to overhear their schemes.

There's stuff here for both long-time fans and newbies. The newbies may get a slightly bigger buzz from the initial shock of hearing such language come from the mouths of a bunch of elementary school kids. But only the devout will quite understand the context of songs like "Kyle's Mom Is a Bitch" (reprised from the infamous 1997 episode with Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo) and "What Would Brian Boitano Do?" (a reference to the first real South Park cartoon, the five-minute Spirit of Xmas).

If anything is likely to come as a surprise to the faithful, it's the degree to which Bigger, Longer & Uncut is a full-on musical. There are more than a dozen major musical numbers in a movie that, minus the closing credits, clocks in at about 75 minutes. As Parker has proved with his songs for both the TV show and Cannibal!: The Musical, he actually has a great facility for coming up with Broadway-style melodies. While most are parodies -- of Les Miz, Busby Berkeley, and Oklahoma, among others -- it's hard not to suspect that some part of Parker really does love show tunes and aspires to be Richard Rodgers. This time around, many of the numbers were co-written with composer Marc Shaiman, whose interstitial score is also frequently witty.

Except for some very nice special effects, involving Heaven, Hell, and war, the animation is true to the deliberately clunky "paper-cutout method" of the TV show (long since done with computers rather than with real paper cutouts). The characters' legs appear to be sewn tightly together when they walk, and there is no attempt at "visual beauty." In the style's defense, the animators manage to produce an extraordinary range of facial expression with minimal movement -- no small accomplishment in itself. And, most important, if the technical work were more sophisticated, the movie wouldn't be nearly as funny, which is, after all, the whole point.

The one negative aspect of the film may have been a fluke of the press screening: The sound was grating and murky. The painful volume in the theater was no doubt part of the problem. But, even compensating for that, it sounded as though the sound mix was excessively shrill and muddy. In one number where bits of several songs are reprised all at once (in the manner of the prerumble sequence in West Side Story), the parts fused into an unintelligible whole, an ugly bouillabaisse of noise. I'm sure it would have been much funnier otherwise.

Still, for South Park fans and for those without priggish sensitivity to the way their children really talk behind their backs, Bigger, Longer & Uncut delivers: It's never less than funny, and at its best, it's truly hysterical.

South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut
Directed by Trey Parker. Written by Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and Pam Brady. With the voices of Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Mary Kay Bergman, and Isaac Hayes.

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