Thumb Wars (1999)
In the world of spoof and parody, there are two distinctive approaches that one can work from. Either one, you start from the thing you wish to parody, and you find humorous observations that allow you to twist and change and poke fun directly at things that are specific to that particular film, tv show, or franchise. In the case of Star Wars, there has only been one spoof that approached it from that angle: and that was Spaceballs. Every character, object, image, or phrase was taken from Star Wars, and twisted into something different that made it funny. Jabba the Hut was turned into Pizza the Hut (one of the more obvious puns). Light Sabers became a dick joke about who had the bigger package. And the Millennium Falcon became an old beat-up trailer because it was piloted by two rag-tag dudes road-tripping around the galaxy. Not really too far off from the original film’s depiction.
But the second approach to parody is to start from an established universe with established rules, and then you build a parody of another franchise off of those rules. You take the characters from one world, and cast them to best fit another, and you also take the tropes and gags from one show, and you slot them in where-ever there are parallels.
This is the style of parody that is in far greater abundance, and Star Wars is perhaps the biggest receiver of it. We have the Family Guy version and the Robot Chicken version of course, but there’s also been the Tiny Toons parody, the Codename: Kids Next Door parody, the Phineas and Ferb parody (with the original characters also present), the very early Hardware Wars parody, and the 1980s cartoon series The Muppet Babies had at least 3 episodes that parodied Star Wars as well.
So then we have Thumb Wars: the premiere film parody for an entire series of film parodies, all built around the premise that there is an entire universe made up of nothing but thumb people and limb-related humor.
Really? Limb-related humor?
I guess you could also say appendage-related humor. But literally ANYTHING that comes off of your body other than your head or your wiener becomes the basis of some object or gag throughout the course of this film, as well as all of the other films produced in the franchise. And the creator of this ground-breaking pantheon of humor is non-other than Steve Oedekerk: the guy who beat Joey at a national comedy competition on Full House, directed and starred in Kung-Pow, directed Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, and gave us the Nickelodeon hit series, Jimmy Neutron.
Oedekerk is a very unique guy, in that his ideas are often extremely off the wall and bizarre, and yet he’s been allowed to pursue them as far as he can. Kung Pow does have its moments, but it ultimate gets bogged down by a rather slow pace and certain jokes that run on too long. His Nickelodeon project, Jimmy Neutron—which was a little bit too close to Dexter’s Lab territory—started out as a feature film that got its own ride at the Universal Studios park, and then later got a decently long running TV series.
But then Oedekerk came back with a TV movie and series called Barn Yard, and I think it was clear that Barn Yard was far and away much less clever than Jimmy Neutron was. Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius could do just about anything, it had free range because Jimmy was extremely intelligent, with the capabilities to invent anything and go anywhere. Barn Yard turns that around and gets stuck on a farm, with very little place else to go, with a bunch of talking animals. It’s almost the complete opposite kind of show. Perhaps the funniest thing Oedekerk ever did was direct the likes of Jim Carrey, and gave him two of the most well-remembered movie comedy phrases, “Bumble-bee Tuna” and “Shikaka.”
But then we have the Thumb films: a project that clearly started out as a play on the phrase “I Declare a Thumb War,” but then turned into a franchise that make very little sense, has very few world-specific puns that it can make (with regards to fingers, hands, and feet), requiring that far more third-party puns are made. And ultimately wasn’t something that could last beyond 6 parodies: Thumb Wars, Bat-Thumb, Frankenthumb, The Blair Thumb, Thumbtanic, and The God Thumb. Back on the old Thumb films website, there were trailers released for upcoming spoofs of The Matrix and Harry and the Hendersons, but unfortunately those were never able to be made. Although, I think just about any young filmmaker these days with enough materials on hand could make his own thumb-film parody, and it would be almost as good as what Oedekerk did back in the late 90s and early 2000s. I actually wish Oedekerk would come back and make a few more just to say that he finished what he had set out to accomplish. But I don’t think there’s much hope for that happening now. So as it stands, we have to live with the 6 films that exist: some of which are indeed better than others.
But to get back to Thumb Wars; because Steve Oedekerk did have a couple of Thumb Film parodies planned, it was clear that he wasn’t going to be able to parody each Star Wars film in turn, and so he opted to just parody the first film, while also including a few elements from the latter two (Empire and Jedi). So essentially what we get is a film that follows the structure of A New Hope, but throws in a scene with a Yoda knock-off, and references to things that only happened in Empire and Jedi, giving us an all-in-one package.
Now despite how things have sounded up till now, I think this spoof it really well made, its designs and spoofed imagery is often clever and witty, and it has quite a few hilarious moments that genuinely stick with you. I’ve also seen this film quite a few dozen times in my life, so anything that I don’t find immediately funny anymore is likely because I’ve grown bored of it. However, I do think this film has shown some serious age since the explosion of the internet, and much of its humor has suffered for it.
To be honest, the over-all approach to the humor is almost childish. A lot of it sounds like jokes that your Mom would make on a good day when she wanted to cheer you up when you were 10 years old. And yet other gags are clearly meant for seasoned adults, which is why I wasn’t able to watch this film until I was about 12.
Like for instance, when this film’s Han Solo (known as Hand Duet) is negotiating payment for passage to Alderon (Deldar), he asks that he be paid in “girly giggles.” Back when this direct-to-video spoof came out, I’m sure that joke was hilarious because it was wholly unexpected. But today it sounds really really lame, and the payoff is not nearly as good as it could be.
There’s also a moment when Princess Laia (Princess Bun-head, subtle) is telling off Lord Vader (Black Helmet Man), and she spells out how bad he is and how good she is. I have a clip of that below.
SKIP over to 3:48 for it.
You almost want to slap your face because of how flat that joke just fell. There’s nothing funny about that, it’s just gobble-dee-gook, and really lousy gobble-dee-gook.
As for the adult humor, we get moments like Obi-wan and Luke (Loke Groundrunner) bending over to look up the skirt of the Princess Laia hologram, and C3P-O and R2-D2 sleeping together. Because of course any effeminate man or robot must automatically be gay.
But again, some of the humor actually sticks and sticks well even today. Calling Obi-wan Kenobi Oobee-doob Banoobee is still really really funny; especially when his middle name is Scooby-Doobee. Luke being overly whiny here lends some chuckles. And having Luke get zapped in the crotch over and over by his light-sabor training piñata still gets a laugh every time.
SKIP over to 6:56 for it.
I can also give some props to the performances and the casting in this and other Thumb films, because the acting is actually not too bad. And although most of the actors here didn’t go on to much else, we do have one surprise guest in the cast: veteran voice-actor, Rob Paulson, who plays both Oobee-Doob Banoobee and a few of the Imperial Officers with his trade-mark aristocratic English accent. I also found the performance of Mark DeCarlo as Black Helmet Man to be a really menacing and qualified version of the Darth Vader sound and voice: far more effective than just Stewie Griffin talking with a small reverb in his voice.
I think the best line in the entire film is when this Yoda stand-in says “Hand goes into puppet.”
It’s just… so weird. And you don’t entirely get why he says it and all of these other things until you realize that it yet again has something to do with limbs, hands, and of course, thumbs. It’s all “limb-related humor,” just like I said.
Now, if you haven’t noticed yet, the way in which these thumb characters are created is by taking all of the voice actors, filming their faces, and then taking both of their eyes and their mouths and tracking them to the pads of each of these live-action thumbs. It’s pretty much exactly what “The Annoying Orange” does, except this came out back in 1999, WAY before the Annoying Orange did. So although I don’t think you can copyright a visual process like this, where you place someone’s face onto something else, The Annoying Orange is nonetheless clearly inspired by these parody films, and was initially a process created by Steve. He even had a prototype version of this technique in his film Kung Pow, when his tongue came out of his mouth to fight off his enemies.
Out of all of the parody films and tv show episodes that are out there, this is probably one of the more notable ones to see, and I would equally recommend this just as much as I would the Family Guy: Blue Harvest spoof. But I would probably suggest the Phineas and Ferb spoof far more than either of those, especially because Disney now owns Lucas Arts and Star Wars, and was able to use the original characters amongst all of their parody material; which did make for some interesting moments.
If you want to check this Thumb film out, you can watch the whole thing at that video I linked to earlier for the Princess Bun Head line, or you can still find a few used copies on DVD for fairly cheap over at Amazon.com. I’ll post a link below.
Next time, we may have another Star Wars-ish parody to talk about, and one that is far more rare.