A milk shake, a box of fries and a wad of meat share a house in New Jersey. Humorists such as "The Far Side's" Gary Larson or the creators of "Monty Python's Flying Circus" would take that as fodder for a typically surreal gag. With Cartoon Network's "Aqua Teen Hunger Force," the gag essentially starts and ends with its bizarre premise.
Probably the flagship show of Cartoon Network's Adult Swim bloc of grown-up comedy (mostly produced at Atlanta's Williams Street studio), "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" typically finds humor in the most insanely ridiculous situations the creators can imagine. Rather than set up and pay off jokes in a conventional way, "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" builds humor around an aggressive strain of nonsense, non sequiturs, out-of-nowhere asides and deliberate tedium.
The Adult Swim brand of humor frequently reveals a confident, personal quality driven by its creators' instincts rather than knee-jerk spoofing of current events or attempting to pander to a particular demographic. The format works nicely in 11-minute increments around midnight, as if you've stumbled across your television's own fever dreams. But where "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" makes a tasty snack on TV, watching the feature film is like trying to make a big meal out of vending-machine food.
The impressive thing about the big-screen version, with the deliberately unwieldy title Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters, is how much faith it keeps with the Adult Swim ethos. Writer/directors Matt Maiellaro and Dave Willis make few concessions to the uninitiated or, frankly, the nonstoned. Unless you're already a serious fan, you'll find the Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie difficult to like, even as you appreciate its commitment to the random.
From giant marauding pets to villainous Abraham Lincolns, the Aqua Teen is so persistently weird that simply explaining it feels like an exercise in futility. The name itself means nothing, and the fact that the characters are foodstuffs almost never gets acknowledged. Nevertheless, they make an engaging comedy team. Frylock (voiced by Carey Means) is the smart, responsible, straight man who happens to be a carton of french fries. Master Shake (Dana Snyder) is the entirely nasty and selfish milk shake. Meatwad (Dave Willis) is the immature, childlike meatball. The vivid vocal performances convey a definite chemistry not unlike the Three Stooges, only if Moe were nice – and made of deep-fried potato products.
The plot offers a kind of satire of the Terminator movies, involving the Insaneoflex, a piece of exercise equipment that may contain the ability to destroy mankind. The Aqua Teens know nothing of its dangerous potential: Master Shake just wants to work out to attract girls. In a characteristic gag, he brags about his toned arm muscles, oblivious to the fact that he has no arms, just gloves attached to his sides.
Meanwhile, two blobby alien slackers learn about the Insaneoflex from the Cybernetic Ghost of Christmas Past (which humps everything in sight and looks like a cross between robot, duck and Roman centurion). The movie partly depicts a half-assed race to repair and gain control of the Insaneoflex, and partly explains the Aqua Teens' secret origin. Given that nearly every plot point is contradicted, the more you try to follow the story the more frustrated you'll become.
It's not like the film offers lush visuals, either. The cheapness of the animation enabled Cartoon Network to bankroll the Adult Swim shows in the first place, and speaks to the notion of the shows as a Bizarro World version of the old, flat Hanna-Barbera cartoons. On the big screen, the static backgrounds and inexpressive characters are more of an eyesore.
The visual limitations offer an advantage with the film's funniest characters, the now-notorious Mooninites – hostile, juvenile extraterrestrials who resemble crudely animated Atari video-game characters. There's an amusing incongruity between the primitive design and Willis' haughty vocals as Ignignokt the Mooninite, who complains that they have to live at the Y and then brags that they pee in the pool: "Digital gold cascades from our square bladders," he deadpans.
The Mooninites, it should be noted, turned up in those electronic signs promoting the film that caused the terrorism scare in Boston. Turner Broadcasting and the marketing company ponied up $2 million in cleanup and goodwill costs (more than twice the film's budget), which is probably a bargain given how the stunt put the obscure, niche-oriented show on the mass media's radar.
Part of the puzzle of the Aqua Teen movie is figuring out what it's satirizing. Apart from an early spoof of the wholesome, vintage "Let's All Go to the Lobby" cartoon, its targets aren't exactly clear. "South Park" leaves little doubt to the butts of its jokes, while Aqua Teen's seems to be tweaking its own viewership. The characters behave almost uniformly like young, slow-witted slackers with few concerns beyond their own appetites. They may look like food products or aliens, but they act like characters from a Kevin Smith film.
The film's final scenes feature so many false starts and contradictions that you wonder if the creators literally hope the audience will file out in disgust. Maiellaro and Willis show a commitment to narrative chaos more in keeping with classic dadaism and surrealism than any kind of commercial entertainment you can find today. But goofing on pointlessness eventually feels pointless, too, and Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters turns self-defeating. You can't have your junk food and eat it, too.