The South Park Movies Ranked
In middle school, I caught up on all of the SOUTH PARK (1997-present) that had yet aired. Ever since then, I’ve kept up with the controversial animated cutout sitcom. As an adolescent, the childish-adult humor was electrifying, opening up my mind to an array of mature concepts and references. As I grew older, I was able to appreciate SOUTH PARK characters, jokes, and elements more and more. I also became increasingly aware of the show’s place in a kind of “cultural panic” when it first came out, and how it continued to make headlines until, well, now. The outrageousness of SOUTH PARK has become more commonplace, with adult cartoons appearing ad nauseum in today’s TV streaming diet, but Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s creation still draws criticism. It’s a sign of its longevity, and Parker and Stone’s growing age, that what once angered conservatives and delighted liberals has now often reversed the polarity. The comedy of SOUTH PARK, in recent years, has taken aim at what its creators perceive as “woke comedy,” and its season-length storylines have dragged these ideas and other tired ones through the mud. SOUTH PARK has always been “problematic,” but there is at times a bitterness to its message, rather than the more pointed, aware, and chaotic humor the show once exhibited. Or who knows, maybe I’ve just gotten more “sensitive,” as Parker and Stone might like to point out. Regardless, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the show isn’t as funny as it once was, although remarkably for a show in its 24th season, I don’t think SOUTH PARK has totally bitten the dust.
I say 24th season, but the state of the program isn’t quite clear at this point. Oh well, it’s renewed out to its 30th season and Paramount+ is receiving a series of SOUTH PARK movies, but I’m referring to the presence of the show over the past two COVID-infected years. There hasn’t been a full regular season of SOUTH PARK since 2019. In late 2020, a special episode titled “The Pandemic Special” brought the franchise back into the spotlight. A follow up in early 2021, “South ParQ Vaccination Special,” continued a pandemic storyline. And now, in the final two months of the year, two “made for television [streaming] movies” have begun SOUTH PARK’s association with Paramount+ and (hopefully) concluded the COVID saga that has defined SOUTH PARK for two years.
But the two new movies aren’t the first to apply a filmic treatment to SOUTH PARK. The idea originated in two short films that Parker and Stone created, one in college and one a couple of years before the show was greenlit. And the theatrical release BIGGER, LONGER, & UNCUT was a tremendous success. So I thought I’d trace the presence of SOUTH PARK “in film,” across the five movies released in the 29 years since the first SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS short in 1992. It’s kind of splitting hairs, but I’m omitting the two aforementioned specials, apparently lumped as they are into the beginning of a 24th season, even though their story is continued into the two latest streaming releases. I think there is a distinction in the categorization of the two specials and two TV movies, which I’ll write more about below. I’ve also left off IMAGINATIONLAND: THE MOVIE (2008), which was a DVD compilation of the three-episode story arc from season 11. I almost included 6 DAYS TO AIR (2011), a great making-of documentary, but it isn’t quite a “South Park movie” either. These other things that don’t make it into this list are worth watching, granted that you like SOUTH PARK, which is somehow often controversial even today.
All movies directed by Trey Parker.
#5 — THE SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS [JESUS VS. FROSTY] (1992)
In the years before SOUTH PARK officially debuted as a series, Trey Parker and Matt Stone made two shorts under the same name: THE SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS. To distinguish them beyond their year of release, they’ve taken on unofficial subtitles; in this case, JESUS VS. FROSTY. It should be noted that the two preceding shorts never bore the SOUTH PARK name, but they are inextricably linked to the franchise regardless. This first one, created while the guys were students at University of Colorado, carries the extremely rough cutout style that would only a few years later be incredibly famous. It also has the designs of the four central boys that are mostly recognizable, although some of the names are mixed up, and sees them dealing with a murderous Frosty the Snowman and Santa (who is actually just the Frosty-demon in disguise, I suppose). The nearly four-minute short is amateurish and simple, but it’s oh so delightful. It appropriately reflects the early tendencies of Parker and Stone to just subvert iconic imagery into twisted, childish humor, without the grand satirical message. If this short existed without the supplementary series to come, it would hopefully still be an impressive relic of an emerging, Gen X-led style of ’90s humor.
#4 — THE SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS [JESUS VS. SANTA] (1995)
The second SPIRT OF CHRISTMAS short, also known as JESUS VS. SANTA, upped the ante and brought the imagery and elements that could be almost directly linked to the final form SOUTH PARK took. Santa appeared in the JESUS VS. FROSTY short, and so did a baby Jesus, but in this fight between the two Christmas “mascots,” they appear in the forms they would take in just a few years. The central characters look like they would and bear their appropriate names as well. The animation in JESUS VS. SANTA is much improved, and offers more exciting links to the standby elements of the series to come. SOUTH PARK’s origins and earliest characters lie in Christmas; these shorts were created as parodies of the Rankin/Bass TV specials of yore. Those origins also lie in this short’s popularity, more than JESUS VS. FROSTY, as JESUS VS. SANTA was created as a video Christmas card for Fox executive Brian Graden, to be sent out to a few dozen people. The short became bootlegged, word passed around, and eventually the show came to rest with Comedy Central, and the rest is history. It’s remarkable that in those pre-domineering-internet days, a thing like SOUTH PARK could be born out of such a process, but hey, it was the ’90s. I can see why the short, which must have just apparently bloomed out of nowhere to the people who were able to see it in its original form, was exciting. It’s funny and novel to this day, even if its holiday-skewering humor has been done on the full-fledged SOUTH PARK series many times since.
#3 — SOUTH PARK: POST COVID: THE RETURN OF COVID (2021)
The latest SOUTH PARK movie at the time of this writing hopefully concludes the COVID saga started last year. Well, I hope COVID itself will be closer to being done by the time the guys make another movie (unlikely thanks to the omicron variant), but I’m also a bit tired of the storyline begun in “The Pandemic Special” episode of the show. SOUTH PARK: POST COVID: THE RETURN OF COVID’s predecessor, simply POST COVID, established the cool idea of showing the boys and kids as adults, in a futuristic-ish world where COVID has been eradicated. But in THE RETURN OF COVID, that concept is reiterated without much development, and many jokes and recap situations are brought over into the hour-long run time. There are a few laugh-out-loud moments, especially in relation to Butters and his NFT obsession, but the continued “the future is woke so it sucks now” gag is just really tired. Otherwise, the somewhat optimistic ending of THE RETURN OF COVID is surprisingly earnest, bringing a mostly satisfying conclusion to the relationship problems between the four boys. But of course, it’s still tied to the new paradigm of Randy’s status as a weed farmer. If I have to hear a Tegridy joke one more time…
#2 — SOUTH PARK: POST COVID (2021)
SOUTH PARK: POST COVID is similar in nature to the two special episodes that preceded it, and continued their storyline. But as a “movie-shaped” thing, it was the first in 22 years of SOUTH PARK’s history (minus of course the compilation DVD IMAGINATIONLAND: THE MOVIE and 6 DAYS TO AIR). Like BIGGER, LONGER, & UNCUT, POST COVID is able to change the formula of a SOUTH PARK episode, even more so than the double-length specials, enough to distinguish it as a filmic entry. That’s partly because of its premise, which flash forwards 40 decades and sees Stan, Kyle, Cartman, and Kenny’s lives as middle-aged adults. It’s a situation rife with potential, which in many ways is fulfilled. But it’s also not pulled off without a hitch, as the COVID-related jokes are getting tired and the constant invocations of “woke comedy” comes off as whiny rather than salient. It’s not a matter of “not being able to joke about these things,” but rather a matter of making it actually funny. In any event, the movie operates on a scale big enough to make it even more special than a special, even if those episodes are superior. POST COVID is funny in enough moments and it tells a relatively compelling story about characters that we’ve seen for nearly 30 years. So it is a welcome return to a movie-esque structure for SOUTH PARK.
#1 — SOUTH PARK: BIGGER, LONGER, & UNCUT (1999)
Somehow, back when I was catching up on the show, I never watched SOUTH PARK: BIGGER, LONGER, & UNCUT. And somehow, I never remedied that until a couple weeks ago. Perhaps I felt I was a bit past that era. Maybe I was worried that a movie from the earliest days of the show would taint my rose-tinted glasses about “how good the show used to be.” Or maybe I was worried that it wouldn’t live up to the incredible hype for the only theatrically released SOUTH PARK movie so far. There are people who don’t really like the show who like BIGGER, LONGER, & UNCUT, after all. Ultimately, maybe my reticence was justified. Maybe I would have liked the movie more when I was 13, but BIGGER, LONGER, & UNCUT didn’t make me laugh the way I was hoping it would. Now, to qualify that statement: I think BIGGER, LONGER, & UNCUT is very good. In fact, I don’t think it’s crazy to say that it contributes to that vaunted theory that 1999 is one of the best years in film history. SOUTH PARK was only a few years old at this point, and the feature film treatment brilliantly increased the stakes of the show. It improved the animation (I love the CGI in Hell), injected catchy and surprisingly well-written show tunes, and told an epic, satirical story. The meta self-deprecation and criticism of the military industrial complex, film ratings and censorship, and religious hysteria are definitely potent even 22 years later. But with some of its more straightforward potty humor, what I would like to call “old-school” SOUTH PARK vibes rooted in the fantasy of Jesus, a singing and dancing poo, or in this case, a gay Satan, I was a bit disappointed. To be clear, this is a relative statement, and maybe indicative of the fact that I hold older seasons of SOUTH PARK in a nostalgia-imprisoned part of my mind (besides, the mid-2000s seasons are probably better anyways). It’s strange that there wasn’t a closer film follow up to BIGGER, LONGER, & UNCUT, or even another theatrical release at the time of this writing. Parker and Stone said, way back in the day, that they would conclude the series with a feature film sequel. Even if those plans have changed, if this was the best way the show was translated to the cinematic medium/format, BIGGER, LONGER, & UNCUT would go down in history as a tremendous achievement for SOUTH PARK, a funny and salient satire that expanded the scope of what the show itself could be.