My Favorite Movies – Cannibal! The Musical (1996)

13 Jan

By Tanner Smith

I can credit my old college buddy Jordan Mears for this one–it’s his favorite movie; the more times he talked about it or showed me clips from it, the more compelled I was to watch it. I want to thank him for influencing me to check out this delightfully “shpadoinkle” musical dark comedy from the creators of “South Park” and “The Book of Mormon.”

Made in 1993 and released by Troma in 1996, “Cannibal! The Musical” was the debut film from director Trey Parker and co-producer Matt Stone, both of whom would go on to be two of the brightest satirists in TV and film history. It tells the true story of prospector Alferd Packer, who led a doomed expedition that resulted in frostbite, death, and cannibalism among his party. Though…this movie takes some liberties, to say the least. (But this is a musical farce–so if you care about historical accuracy, this is not the movie for you.)

The film was made when Parker and Stone were film students at the University of Colorado in Boulder. It began as a three-minute trailer for film class, which then gave them funding to make a feature film out of it. While the finished film definitely has that “student-film” aspect to it, that just adds to its charm. What charm it already has comes from its love-letter approach to Hollywood musicals and Western films and just having a ton of goofy fun with it.

Parker plays Packer (though he’s credited as Juan Schwartz, named after “John Schwartz,” one of the real Alferd Packer’s alias’), and he’s an engaging performer. Whether it’s singing for laughs or singing it straight, he’s outstanding here. He plays Packer as a total goof with inexperience as a wilderness guide and a great naïveté, plus a love for his horse Liane. He leads a group of Utah miners on a journey to Colorado Territory in 1873–they are compulsive liar Humphrey (Stone), Mormon priest Shannon Bell (Ian Hardin), butcher Frank Miller (Jason McHugh), teenage horndog George Noon (Dian Bachar), and overt optimist Swan (John Hegel).

These guys are a lot of fun. They range from jolly (Swan) to cynical (Miller), and all of the actors share great chemistry together.

Blah, blah, blah–what about the songs?? They’re all memorable and fantastic. There’s the joyful opener (“Shpadoinkle”), the hopeful-wishes song (“That’s All I’m Asking For”), the lovesick ballad (actually, there are two–“When I Was On Top of You” and “This Side of Me”), the villain song (“The Trapper Song”), the optimistic song (“Let’s Build a Snowman”–my personal favorite), and the celebration of pending execution (“Hang the Bastard”). They’re all very funny too, such as when Parker sells his Roy Rogers-esque moments, we hear more through “That’s All I’m Asking For” of what everyone wants (particularly Noon, who just wants to have sex), the subtle subtext of “When I Was On Top of You” (made even funnier when you know the background behind the subplot involving the horse named Liane), when the villains (a group of trappers) stop their song to have an argument about music theory, and especially when Packer’s love interest Polly Pry (Toddy Walters) sings “This Side of Me” and a passerby stops and is confused at her performance. The reprisals are funny too, particularly when the characters are on the verge of dying and don’t have much energy to reprise “That’s All I’m Asking For.”

Oh, right, there’s a story, isn’t there? While on the journey, Packer’s horse Liane runs away, with all of the group’s food, thus beginning their problems. They get lost, find refuge at an “Indian camp” (where all the self-described “Indians” are all played by Japanese exchange students and led by Masao Maki, playing my favorite character in the movie), leave even when they’re warned it’s too dangerous to venture out in the winter, and…well, let’s just say most of them don’t make it out alive. As the late Roger Ebert used to say, a movie is not about what it is about but about how it goes about it (I don’t think he saw this movie; in his scathing review of Parker’s later film “Orgazmo,” he even hinted that he never would). With this much entertainment value, who needs a story?

Cheap and amateurish, yes; but “Cannibal! The Musical” is a rollicking good time. All the songs are memorable and quotable, as are the characters, and the movie has great comedic timing. And it would prove to be a promising start for the careers of Trey Parker & Matt Stone. (Another one of my favorite movies: “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut,” of course.)

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