Z To A: Cannibal! The Musical (1993)

(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)

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Plot Synopsis: Cannibal! The Musical is the true story of the only person convicted of cannibalism in America- Alferd Packer.  The sole survivor of an ill-fated trip to the Colorado Territory, he tells his side of the harrowing tale to news reporter Polly Pry as he awaits his execution.  And his story goes like this: while searching for gold and love in the Colorado Territory, he and his companions lost their way and resorted to unthinkable horrors, including tap-dancing songs!  Packer and his five wacky mining buddies sing and dance their ways into your heart… and then take a bite out of it!

– From DVD Production Notes

(Spoilers Ahead)

How does one write about Cannibal! The Musical?  This is something I’ve struggled with since tackling this post.  Like Monty Python and The Holy Grail or Hot Rod, it’s easy to write a blow-by-blow of your favorite moments.  “Hey, Remember this funny part? And also, do you remember that scene?  It was hilarious.”  It’s one of those movies you simply won’t understand until you see it, and even then there is something about its comedy that transcends analysis or language.

But I’ll try.  Wish me luck.

First off, Cannibal is the movie Trey Parker and Matt Stone failed film school to make.  With a self-raised budget of $125,000, the duo and their friends set off to tell the story of Alferd Packer, a prospector who was put on trial for cannibalism in the 1870s.

But that’s not all.  It was decided that a dark chapter in Colorado history would be best conveyed through jokes, gore, singing and celebratory dance.  According to the audio commentary, when they started showing the film around Los Angeles everyone assumed they were gay.  “Why would they think we’re gay?!” Parker asked sarcastically.

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If anyone considers Cannibal or its cast to be “gay,” that just defaults to how I redefine the word: awesome.  It’s more than a musical or a filmmaking debut.  It’s lightning in a bottle.  As an idea it shouldn’t work at all, or at the very least be a brief sketch or a spoof trailer.  But it does.  Every bit of it is a testament to Parker’s strength as a writer-director and how he can turn the dark, controversial and macabre into entertainment.  Hilarious, horrific and well-written entertainment.  The choreography ain’t that bad either.

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But there’s carnage too.  Let’s not forget this is a movie about cannibalism.  The story begins with Alferd Packer on trial for killing and eating his five traveling companions during a trek from Utah to Colorado.  In short: he’s boned.  The prosecution is taking him down with a grisly account of what happened in the woods: Packer tearing off limbs, snapping necks and mutilating everyone while mugging and chittering like a madman.

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After this exaggerated “reenactment” Cannibal continues to tow a fine line between remaining true to history while everything else is up for grabs, starting with the characterizations.  For one thing Packer is, like, a total dumb idiot.  Parker plays him as a wide-eyed, idealistic fool with the worst luck on the planet.  In a way he could represent innocence getting crushed by the harshness of nature and society, but this is a movie with no intention of taking itself seriously.  Parker would probably settle on, “Yeah, he’s just a moron.”

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Most of the movie is Packer telling his version of things to Polly Pry (Toddy Walters), a journalist who visits him in the local jail.  To say the least it’s different from what the prosecution is saying, and overall a lot more whimsical.  And musical.  Or perhaps the more appropriate word is “shpadoinkle.”

We see Packer setting out for Colorado territory with five fellow prospectors, each with their own hopes and dreams: Bell (Ian Hardin), Humphrey (Matt Stone), Miller (Jason McHugh), Noon (Dian Bachar) and Swan (Jon Hegel).  Shortly after their departure everything starts to go wrong- not that they weren’t warned.  A real life Alferd Packer lookalike warns them to turn back and keeps saying they’re “doomed… doomed… doomed.”  Then he walks offscreen and into the ether… or a canyon?

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The prediction turns out to be true.  They make enemies with some lugheaded Trappers, then Packer’s horse goes missing.  Things get worse when Bell steps into a bear trap, the whole party gets swept down a river and they proceed to get hopelessly lost during a cruel winter, suffering from exhaustion and starvation.  When they finally find a lamb to hunt they run into a Cyclops who spouts puss from his bad eye and tells them to stay away from his “sheepees.”

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It isn’t long before the group is simply trying not to die or lose their minds.  The only exception is Swan (Hegel), who may be one of the most beautiful comedic characters ushered into existence.  He personifies the doggedly optimistic Mormon, proudly beaming and tap dancing in the face of obliteration.  His solution for starving and enduring the cold is a number called “Let’s Build A Snowman.

It doesn’t end well.

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Things only get more grisly and hilarious from there, culminating in a scene where Packer keeps trying to sing but has to stop and kill a character who refuses to die.  Even returning to civilization doesn’t help and he runs off to Wyoming, but it does little good.

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In spite of all of this, Packer’s greatest tragedy is the loss of his love.  His heart beats for his one thing alone: his beloved horse Liane, who has been with him since he was a kid.  This is a completely fictional part of the story, but mirrors a shake-up in Parker’s personal life.  He dated a girl named Liane through high school and proposed to her in college, but right before the wedding he discovered she was cheating on him with a guy in an acapella group.  Not surprisingly the wedding was called off.

In Cannibal things aren’t much different.  Liane the horse is “stolen” so Packer faithfully pursues her across the wilderness, only to discover she has abandoned him.  What’s more, she’s letting everyone ride her (this was obviously a sore spot for Parker- the joke continues with Liane Cartman on South Park to this day).

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Cannibal‘s absurdity is what makes it fun, and overall that’s what won me over.  I’m not big on musicals, but I love the craziest and funny ones, including Cannibal, AD/BC: A Rock OperaSaturday’s Warrior and Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical.  This one may be the only one that ends with a hanging day, but getting there is a hell of a ride.  Emotions soar, skulls are crushed, love triumphs and justice is/isn’t served.

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And that’s fine with me.  Wait, didn’t I just describe most of Dancer In the Dark?  Whoa.  That’s another story.

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