Friday, September 2, 2011

Seven Parody Movies that can Stand on their Own

The parody film genre has one fatal flaw - you can't feed it after midnight. Did you get the reference? Good, then you're either a film connoisseur, a child of the 80's, or handy with Google. Otherwise, you're scratching your head wondering what "feed after midnight" has to do with anything. This is a parody film's fatal flaw - you have to understand the references to appreciate the jokes.

Which means that for a lot of films, enjoying them involves hours and hours of prep-work watching and enjoying other movies and possibly television shows. (And for some of the films that get lampooned, enjoying isn't exactly the right word for it.) Having to do homework before watching a movie makes it seem like English class all over again, where the reward for reading the book was to watch a poorly produced movie of the book made before any of us were born. (I'm looking at YOU Great Gatsby)

However, not all parody films are like that. The best are those that transcend being a parody and become an even better version of what it spoofs. It's a film you can appreciate on its own merits, and you may not even realize that you are dealing with a parody. The seven movies I'm talking about today are examples of parodies that stand on their own.


Parody of: Every Disney film about a princess you've ever seen.

Prior Knowledge Needed: Cinderella and Snow White

Memorable Scene: Happy Working Song

I have to hand it to Disney, it's a pretty gutsy move to release a movie lampooning its own brand, especially the princess movies - its bread and butter outside of Pixar. It does make sense, who else but Disney could really make fun of Disney Princesses? True, Shrek gave it a go back in 2001 and did a fantastic job, but I would argue that this live action movie tops that effort. (Besides, Shrek didn't have McDreamy.)

Now, a little prior knowledge is helpful to understand the mindset of Giselle, but given that we're talking Snow White and Cinderella, the references aren't exactly obscure. If you haven't seen them, you know the stories. However, the true aficionado will be able to find many of the sly references made in the film, including cameos by many princess voice actresses and other visual gags that pay homage to the large Disney catalog.

Even if you know nothing of Disney, the plot is easy to appreciate: a fairy tale princess finds herself in New York and finds herself exposed to the cynicism of the "real world." When she meets a divorce attorney (himself a divorcee with a daughter) she begins to re-evaluate what "happily ever after" means. It's a classic fish-out-of-water tale in which the lives of everyone she encounters are made better, and she learns something about herself.

And we learned that Cyclops is pretty awesome as a goofy, singing prince.


Parody of: Classic science fiction movies from the 60's to the 80's, but mostly Star Wars.

Prior Knowledge Needed: The Original Star Wars Trilogy

Memorable Scene: When will then be now? Soon.

Have you seen Star Wars? Really? Not even the classic original trilogy? How can you understand anything on the internet? Half of it is nothing but Star Wars references. Fine. Stop what you're doing, go get the movies and watch them right now. We'll wait.

All right, are we all caught up? Good. You might think it odd that I go on about movies that can stand on their own but then demand that you watch Star Wars for this film. In my defense, Star Wars is deeply ingrained in our culture, and really, it's a rare person who hasn't seen Star Wars. So I don't think that this one movie trilogy is too much of a burden for anyone, nor is it too much to expect that you've already seen it.

Thus, aside from Star Wars, this little spoof of all things science-fiction has a great plot not burdened by needing expert knowledge. It's a classic story of a lovable rogue and his comic relief sidekick. They rescue a princess, she immediately hates the leading man, and then they fall in love while defeating the bad guys. (That is so not a spoiler.) The references to Alien, Star Trek, and Planet of the Apes are just gravy (and appreciated) but not necessary. A lot of the jokes come from the humor and wit of Mel Brooks, master of the parody genre for many years.

Even in space, those aren't pillows

Shaun of the Dead

Parody of: Just about every zombie movie ever.

Prior Knowledge Needed: Zombies. England.

Memorable Scene: Fighting the zombie with pool cues

Most of the "parody" movies made in the past decade were so full of specific references that they forgot to actually make them funny. In fact, they seemed to rest on the laurels of "hey look, I made a specific reference." As such, it was a breath of fresh air to find a parody movie that got it right.

You don't need to see any other zombie movie to appreciate this one. You might want to know a little about England (where it was made) but other than that, it's a story about a slacker, his friend, his girlfriend, and his family as they fight to survive a zombie invasion of London. It's a style parody of George A. Romero movies, but it's more about being silly and riffing on the genre than it is about spoofing any specific movies. (Not that the references aren't there, but you don't need to know them.)

They don't know anything, and we're all right with that

This is Spinal Tap

Parody of: British hair-metal bands popular in the 1980's.

Prior Knowledge Needed: Can you name an 80's hair band? You're good.

Memorable Scene: This one goes to 11

The definitive mockumentary, this film follows fake band Spinal Tap as they tour. It's a great movie on its own merits, and its only made more enjoyable if you know anything about the type of music, bands, stage shows, and the lifestyle. Most bands had/have this movie on the tour bus.

Even if you aren't well versed in the type of music this parodies, you can appreciate the characters and their quirks. You see the conflicts that arise when inches should have been feet, when the glove was not appropriate to smell, and when the band is upstaged by a puppet show. Let's not forget the life expectancy of any drummer who happens to tour with the band.

The best part about this movie is that Spinal Tap the group continued making movies and appearances for the next two decades. So much so that people thought they were a real band rather than just actors who were really into their characters. It's a rare case of the characters in a movie breaking free of the celluloid and going on tour themselves.

The levels of parody here would give MC Escher a headache

Hot Fuzz

Parody of: Just about every buddy-cop movie ever.

Prior Knowledge Needed: If you catch a buddy cop movie on cable, that's enough

Memorable Scene: The preview (I couldn't find a better clip, but in my defense, the preview stands on its own.)

This is the second appearance of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (directed once more by Edgar Wright) and of their two big parody movies, this one is my favorite. This is a send-up of just about every buddy-cop movie and hits the tropes so well that it becomes the movie it parodies. If you are unfamiliar with the movies it spoofs, have no fear, because that's all Nick Frost's character talks about. It's a meta-parody and succeeds beautifully.

Again, you don't need to be familiar with the movies. The plot is simple. A supercop from London is too good at his job and gets transferred to a sleepy village and finds himself smack-dab in the middle of a murder mystery, a town-wide conspiracy, and an epic shootout.  Along the way he learns to relax and not be so by-the-book, while his plucky comic relief learns to believe in himself. And it's got Timothy Dalton, and if you don't think Timothy Dalton is awesome, you haven't seen this movie.

Don't lie, you wish this is what happened at your job.

Galaxy Quest

Parody of: Everything to do with Star Trek

Prior Knowledge Needed: You might want to know what Star Trek is.

Memorable Scene: Beaming him up

Have you heard of Star Trek? Really? First Star Wars and now Star Trek. Look, I'm not asking you to watch the entire original series, but could you at least look it up? Don't worry, it's not like there's a shortage of websites about Star Trek on the internet. Besides, between Star Wars and Star Trek, how do you understand anything anyone says online?

Even if you are the rare individual who doesn't know what Star Trek is, this film works. Essentially, this movie is Three Amigos in space, and that isn't a criticism. The old actors-confused-for-the-real-deal genre is one of my favorites, and melding it with science fiction is pure brilliance. This time, aliens confuse actors on an old science-fiction show for the real thing and bring them into space to help fight the bad guy. (It's the same plot as A Bug's Life.)

Not to mention, Tim Allen playing a Captain Kirk/William Shatner analogue is what I call perfect casting. He hams it up just like Shatner, but not as Shatner. There's plenty of classic Trek references, from the fact that Kirk always lost his shirt, the unnamed crewman who always dies, the transporter, and the countdown timer that always stops at one.

This movie goes further, however, by also spoofing the Star Trek fans (you know, Trekkies) and the conventions where said fans gather. We also see what happens when accomplished actors get pigeonholed into science-fiction roles. (As portrayed by the always brilliant Alan Rickman, who would later risk becoming pigeon-holed playing Snape for eight Harry Potter movies.)

This was all a clever plan to rob the Nakatomi Space Station

The Princess Bride

Parody of: Romantic swashbuckling movies that often starred Errol Flynn

Prior Knowledge Needed: None whatsoever.

Memorable Scene: I am not left-handed (The greatest movie sword-fight ever.)

I defy anyone not to enjoy this movie. (In fact, the notion that anyone wouldn't like it is inconceivable!) This movie transcends the parody genre to the point that it really can't be classified as a parody, it is the perfected embodiment of the films that it lovingly spoofs.

You don't need to see any of the movies that inspired this classic. You don't need to know why you shouldn't go up against a Sicilian when death is on the line. Or to get chills when the vengeance-seeking swordsman says "Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die." Let's not forget the rhyming Fezzik, bitter Miracle Max, the beautiful Princess Buttercup, her one true love Westley, and three words that express love like no others before or since: "As you wish."

What elevates the film even more, as well as provide the meta-commentary throughout, is the fact that this story comes from a book that a grandfather (Peter Falk) reads to his grandson (Fred Savage) who wonders whether this is a "kissing book." This is the kind of subtle commentary and tribute that is lacking in most parodies these days, and even back in 1987, the device was under-appreciated. The film wasn't a theatrical success, but became a bona-fide classic on video, and it still holds up unlike many of its more successful contemporaries.

If that isn't enough, this movie is also one of the few examples of a film being better than the book. If you've read the book, you know what I mean. It's a good book, but while the movie is a light-hearted tribute to fairy-take stories, the book is far more cynical. Furthermore, the book doesn't even understand the beauty of the story its telling, thankfully corrected in the movie.

I fell in love with this movie because I watched it as a child, back in the 80's. I saw it from the child's perspective the first time I watched it, and as I grew up, I gained more and more appreciation for the themes. Now, as a grown-up (a fact that sometimes surprises even me) I see it both as a film I will still enjoy watching, the rare movie better than the book, and a story that children absolutely need to watch if I have anything to do with it.

Thanks for reading. I'll most likely kill you in the morning

I can do more than talk pop culture. Check out the book I wrote.

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