Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Christmas in South Park (2000)
Studio Line: Warner Bros.

Experience the holidays South Park-style with "Mr. Hankey's Christmas Classics," "Merry Christmas Charlie Manson," and "Chinpoko Mon," plus the outrageous BBC documentary, "Goin' Down to South Park."

Director: Trey Parker, Matt Stone
Cast: Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Isaac Hayes
DVD: Standard 1.33:1; audio English Dolby Surround 2.0; subtitles English, French; closed-captioned; single sided - single layered; no chapters; 124 min.; $19.98; street date 11/7/00.
Supplements: "Goin' Down to South Park" Documentary.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: B-/B/B-

When South Park was at its peak of commercial success in 1997, I was firmly on board that bandwagon. I found the show to be funny, clever and irreverent, and although it had more than its fair share of missteps, I usually enjoyed it.

However, the wheels came off that bandwagon fairly quickly, at least for me. Now I'm not a guy who usually falls for trends, and if I do pick up on something massively popular, I almost always stick with it even after the rest of the other converts have moved on to something else.

As such, my abandonment of South Park was unusual for me, especially because I'd liked the show so much for a period of time. Unfortunately, I just thought that it started to get farther and farther from the wonderfully warped mocking sensibility it initially displayed and went more into gratuitously offensive or gross humor. Episodes like the one with the nurse who had a dead fetus stuck to her head or the one in which Cartman thinks he's a Vietnamese prostitute were just inane and excessively crude for my liking and I felt they lacked any spark or ingenuity; the shows had the appearance of imitation SP and didn't entertain me at all.

The franchise showed some signs of life with the fairly-terrific 1999 theatrical release, SP: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut. That film was brassy and bold as it mocked a variety of subjects, most notably the frequent dopiness of the American movie ratings system. All in all, it was a winning package that did a lot to reinterest me in the series.

But not enough to convince me to start to shell out for cable again, so I did not resume weekly viewings of South Park. Actually, I hadn't seen the show at all until I received two SP DVDs: Christmas In South Park and SP: The Chef Experience.

Now that I've seen these DVDs, I must admit I've started to remember why I liked the program. At its best, SP still can offer a lot of cleverness and laughs, as is demonstrated on Christmas, the better of the two DVDs.

We find three episodes of SP on this disc. The first doesn't attempt a plot and instead cobbles together a bunch of holiday songs and calls itself "Mr. Hankey's Holiday Classics". Although it has a few good moments, I thought this December 1999 episode was easily the weakest of the bunch. Mr. Hankey was always a questionable character anyway - after all, he is a singing and dancing piece of poop - and this show includes too many unnecessarily offensive elements. I mean, is there any point to depicting JFK and son, Princess Diana, and Gene Siskel as residents of hell? None I can discern, other than to upset some folks.

Much better are the other two episodes. Ironically, I figured that December 1998's "Merry Christmas Charlie Manson" would also mistake offensiveness for irreverence and humor, but I was completely wrong. This show is the best of the three and offers a hilarious visit to Cartman's grandmother's house during which Uncle Howard escapes from prison and brings another runaway with him. If nothing else, the scenes with Cartman's relatives - especially baby cousin Elvin - are terrific and the show manages to avoid any gratuitously crude elements. This broadcast alone makes the DVD a keeper.

The final episode, November 1999's "Chinpoko Mon", isn't quite as good, but it's fun nonetheless. Its inclusion seems odd since it has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas; it's an obvious parody of the whole Pokemon craze but it never relates to the holiday in the slightest. In any case, the show provides a fun spoof of the toy business, peer pressure and Japanese culture in general and it's a fairly strong episode.

Altogether, Christmas In South Park provides a few good examples of the show's strengths, and a few reminders of its weaknesses. "Mr. Hankey's Christmas Classics" doesn't live up to its name, but "Merry Christmas Charlie Manson" and "Chinpoko Mon" are both very fine shows that offered a lot of entertainment. Two out of three ain't bad, so this DVD works well as a whole.

(For the record, if you're wondering why the original appearance of Mr. Hankey - December 1997's "Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo" - doesn't appear on this disc, that's because it already showed up on DVD Volume 3. As far as I can tell, the famous "Spirit of Christmas" short that launched the franchise still doesn't appear on DVD anywhere.)

The DVD:

Christmas In South Park appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.33:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Overall, the picture displayed the flaws inherent in the show's intentionally crummy-looking animation, but I found it generally satisfactory nonetheless.

Sharpness looked a little fuzzy and indistinct at times, but for the most part, the shows presented acceptably crisp and detailed images. SP never seemed terribly sharp, but it rarely appeared excessively soft either; the program usually maintained a decent balance. Moiré effects occurred on a few occasions, but jagged edges were a more significant problem; many curved lines came across as excessively distorted in that manner. Again, I think a lot of these concerns stemmed from the limitations of the original material, but I still found the "jaggies" distracting nonetheless. The shows displayed no flaws such as distortions of the image otherwise. I assume the programs came from videotape, so normal print concerns like grain or grit wouldn't be an issue, and no other possible defects appear.

Colors were somewhat bland but also represented the program as created. Hues came across as a bit heavy at times, and they seemed vaguely noisy. Black levels tended to be somewhat drab and gray, and shadow detail usually looked slightly too dark; low-light scenes such as those in bedrooms were rather hard to discern. Frankly, South Park doesn't look great, but it never will and it never should; except for some of the jagged edges, I feel satisfied that this DVD replicates the original material with reasonable accuracy.

The same goes for the Dolby Surround 2.0 soundtrack of Christmas In South Park. The soundfield offered a modest spread to the audio. Most of the material stayed within the front spectrum, where I heard mild use of directional effects and some decent stereo music. Vocals seemed to stay in the center except during a few of the songs from "Mr. Hankey's Christmas Classics"; during some of those, the singing shifted slightly to the sides. Audio moved adequately across channels as well, though there's not a great deal of panning or directional sound apparent. The surrounds mainly added some light ambiance that reinforced the music and effects; it gave me a decent impression but didn't contribute much to the experience.

Audio quality appeared good but unspectacular. During some of the songs of "Mr. Hankey's.", the vocals occasionally came across as slightly edgy and rough, but these were the exceptions; the vast majority of speech sounded natural and distinct, and the lines blended well with the action. Effects were clean and acceptably accurate, and music seemed clear and smooth with moderate but decent bass heard at times. Unlike the South Park movie, the TV shows don't offer very strong sound, but they appeared good enough for such material.

Christmas In South Park includes only one extra, but it's a good one: "Goin' Down to South Park", a fine British documentary about the show. This 51 minute program takes a glib but entertaining look at how SP is made. It combines exceedingly facetious interviews from head honchos Matt Stone and Trey Parker - conducted in a hot tub - with shots of the rest of their production team and many examples of the show; the latter include snippets of earlier Stone/Parker works and other components. While I wish Stone and Parker would actually conduct a semi-serious interview some day - it seems like most of their discussions of their work are jokey in this vein and don't transmit much real information - I nonetheless thought that this documentary offered a pretty solid look at SP.

When I requested a copy of Christmas In South Park, I didn't expect to think much of it; the show's quality has been very erratic, and since the DVD seemed to focus on more recent episodes, I figured they'd be fairly lame. However, I was wrong, as one of the three shows was terrific, another was pretty good, and the other had at least a couple of moments. The DVD presents adequate picture and sound plus a cool documentary as an extra. South Park fans will definitely want to add this one to their collections.

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