Trey Parker's Cannibal! The Musical is, I think, the best live-action American movie musical of the '90s. But such praise may actually be too faint--the film is better than most of the animated ones, too. I couldn't remember three notes of any of the songs from Hercules or Mulan, but for the last two days I've had the lyrics of Cannibal!'s opening number, "Shpadoinkle Day," running through my head: "The sky is blue/And all the leaves are green/The sun's as warm as a baked potato/I think you know precisely what I mean/When I say it's a shpadoinkle daaaaay . . ." What's more, I haven't minded. It's not a bad song.
Made on a slim budget more than five years ago, while its writer-director-star, now best known as the co-creator (with Matt Stone) of South Park, was still a student at the University of Colorado, Cannibal! begins with a black-and-white scene of graphic gore, as in a Hershell Gordon Lewis exploitation film. A 19th-century frontiersman attacks the other five members of his party, dismembering and devouring them. This episode turns out to be the picture that a prosecutor is painting for a jury at the 1874 trial of Alfred Packer (played by Parker, under the name "Juan Schwartz") for cannibalism. "That's not how it happened!" poor Packer protests, and the bulk of the film is taken up with his version of the story.
The style also shifts. The film becomes a spoof not of horror pictures but of frontier musicals like Oklahoma! and Paint Your Wagon--the sort that are usually described as "rollicking." The aforementioned "Shpadoinkle Day," sung by Packer as he rides his beloved mare Liane through the Utah Territory, is the equivalent of "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning." It's more rousing, though, and less schmaltzy.
Things get a lot less shpadoinkle as the story progresses, sad to say. Packer, a wide-eyed, vaguely well-meaning fellow, is persuaded into leading a party of prospectors from Utah to Colorado. Once Packer is separated from Liane, he can't give up the search for her, and the group gets hopelessly lost in the wilderness. Bad weather hits, food runs out, and hunger grows. In its broad outlines, the plot is fairly faithful to the (suspect) account of the historical Packer, the only American ever convicted of the specific charge of cannibalism (the sentencing judge, according to lore, accused Packer of eating Democrats in an effort to alter the political demographic of the county).
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Cannibal! goes on a little too long, and there are gags--like the inexplicably all-Japanese tribe of Utes--that are sort of funny but seem off the point of the parody. Overall, though, the film is riotous. It seems to me a much better showcase for Parker's talent than most of South Park, a cartoon for which I must confess I can't work up the same fanatical enthusiasm as can many people I know, witty though it undeniably is at times.
Parker's debut feature holds together on the strength of several elements. His own performance, here as in BASEketball and the current Orgazmo--in which he plays a young Mormon who agrees to act in hard-core porn to finance a proper LDS wedding to his perky fiancee--is sweet and sympathetic. The rest of the cast performs with gusto; Matt Stone, who co-produced and worked on the sound, also plays a major supporting role, as does Dian Bachar, the slight, peppery Martin Short type who went on to co-star in both BASEketball and Orgazmo.
The core of the film's success, however, is the lustily performed songs, which include the love ballad "When I Was on Top of You"--it's sung to the absent Liane--and the production number "Hang the Bastard." Early on, the men sing a chipper ditty called "That's All I'm Askin' For," in which they describe their dreams of wealth or sex; later, when they're starving, they sing a dazed reprise around the campfire in which they ask just to survive, and it has a poignant jolt of frontier harshness. There's even a dream ballet! I can hardly wait for the Broadway version.
Cannibal! The Musical
Directed by Trey Parker.