By Steve Daly
Updated November 26, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

When Disney’s The Little Mermaid reinvented the Broadway musical in cartoon form a decade ago, the waters were fresh. But since then, Disney and a fleet of imitators have overfished the territory, hauling up so many similar meet-the-hero-or-heroine ”I Want” anthems, Busby Berkeley-style showstoppers, and FM-radio-ready romantic ballads that such conventions have become tired, shorthand tropes. (Even Disney isn’t doing full-out Disney musicals any more: Witness Tarzan.)

So how come two first-rate, thoroughly original animated features released in theaters this past summer—one a hilariously smutty send-up of Disney formulas, the other a brave departure from them—didn’t make a bigger splash at the box office? In June, Paramount unleashed South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut to critical delirium and commercial indifference. Spun off from Comedy Central’s MA-rated series, the movie still offered plenty you couldn’t already get at home. It pushed the naughty-language envelope way beyond what first gave the show’s audience the giggles, yet it missed wooing the hordes who pounce on Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler movies. Apparently hampered by the R rating it so gleefully shoved right up against the NC-17 wall, Bigger, Longer & Uncut pulled in $52 million—not bad, but less than 1996’s Beavis and Butthead Do America did, and presumably less than what Paramount had hoped. Just over a month later, The Iron Giant opened to a public that had no idea what it was. And despite scores of admiring reviews, the movie has lumbered to just $23 million in theaters.

On video, these pictures may have a more lucrative time of it. They certainly deserve to. Whatever you think of the poo-obsessed TV show, the South Park movie has much more on its mind than simply being disgusting. Though the visuals are barely advanced over the paper-cutout technique initially used on the TV show, they suit the generally crude, derisive atmosphere just fine.

The script, on the other hand, runs ringworms around the TV show. It brilliantly, eloquently harangues audiences to treasure free speech in the most obscenity-peppered manner imaginable. Mainly it does so through a dozen or so jaw-droppingly tasteless musical numbers. Written mostly by South Park cocreator Trey Parker with composer Marc Shaiman, these wickedly funny ditties ransack such standards as ”Oklahoma” (recast as the insanely hummable incest hoedown ”Uncle F—a”), Little Mermaid‘s ”Part of Your World” (reborn in Satan’s lament, ”Up There”), and Les Misérables‘ ”One Day More” (as the kiddie revolutionary pledge ”La Resistance”), retooling them with lyrics every bit as concise and catchy as the real things. If the Marx Brothers were alive, this is what they’d be doing—except they’d have to call their film F— Soup.

On the opposite end of the age-appropriate scale, The Iron Giant resurrects the innocence of ’50s childhood with delightful sincerity. It’s loosely based on a 1968 book by Ted Hughes, the widower of Sylvia Plath, who wrote it as a consolation to his children after their mother’s suicide—and something of that mood of loss slips into the movie’s vision of a single-mom household. When young Hogarth Hughes (voiced with winning preadolescent pitch by Eli Marienthal) discovers an enormous android electrocuting itself while trying to eat a power plant, he rescues the hapless behemoth. He then enlists a local beatnik artist (Harry Connick Jr.) to help him hide the creature from a rabidly militaristic government agent (an amusingly pompous Christopher McDonald). While first-time feature director Brad Bird didn’t have the time or money to push his animators to capture human expressions with Disney virtuosity, the graphics are just beautiful (even more so in the wide-screen editions, available on tape as well as DVD), and the story’s messages—that guns are dangerous, mobs are unruly, and nonconformist beatniks are cool—emerge as refreshingly prickly and unpatronizing. The movie is as gentle as South Park is ferocious—and equally exciting proof that feature animation needn’t carry the Disney stamp to merit a place in your cartoon collection. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut: A Iron Giant: A-