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Thumb's the word

Taco Bell toys and Pepsi collector cans may be the most frequently seen references to Star Wars: Episode 1– The Phantom Menace, but they are far from the most fascinating. The half-hour TV special "Thumb Wars: The Phantom Cuticle," which aired on UPN 50 May 18, the eve of the real movie’s release in theaters, might have swept past us like a hitchhiker on the shoulder of a Michigan highway. But those of us who didn’t spend the night on the lawn found that there are always ways to deal some cynicism in the face of all the hype. "Thumb Wars" was worth putting on the brakes for one half-hour of interstellar nonsense.

The computer-animated mini-saga is the brainchild of all-around comedy guy Steve Oedekerk, whose name has appeared in the writing credits for the Ace Ventura movies, The Nutty Professor, Nothing to Lose, Patch Adams et al. But this isn’t his first finger feature. Last year, he made the comic drama, Thumbtanic, which will soon be available on home video.

Just imagine pathetic phalange likenesses of the impassioned Jack and Rose buoyed helplessly in the flooded interior of a sinking ship. It just confirms what we already knew: James Cameron’s Disney-with-a-nude-scene blockbuster made a better comedy than a love story.

Thumbs in space are no less entertaining in their tiny finger-puppet versions of Star Wars costumes. Their human mouths and close-set eyes make them look like something Picasso would have made had he been given a Mr. Potato Head. And the accompanying antics are no less hilarious or bizarre.

The Thumb Wars hero, Loke Groundrunner, is a humble farm thumb and the son of the thimble-sporting Black Helmet Man, a phallic form and evil villain who won’t hesitate to use a set of deadly nail clippers on anyone who gets under his cuticle. Loke – remember, he’s the good guy – is on a mission to destroy a giant space station and all the "people" on it, which seems about as sinister as a wood shop accident on the band saw. It’s just a few fingers, right?

Then again, the plot is about the least interesting thing about Thumb Wars. Its pared-down, single-digit silliness and the fact that it probably cost about as much as a good manicure to make are the real marks of its genius. Creative commentary on a multimillion-dollar project like the long-awaited Phantom Menace can be both cheap and effective. Call it a rule of thumb – it just takes a little creativity to feed our apparent need or ability to have a laugh at our own excesses.

From its beginnings, Star Wars has been pumped up to be the modern-day mythology that we can take hold of – with all its questing and clear-cut archetypes. In a way, I guess it is. Endowed with this prestige from the late Joseph Campbell and its huge commercial success, George Lucas’ creation looms large, a model for screenwriters and a lesson for all humankind. So we can think of Oedekerk’s irreverent parody as the equivalent of Loke and the perennially wise Oobedoob Beneubi taking a peek under the dress of Princess Bunhead’s holographic image; the guy who knows when and how to cross the line is going to get away with more and have a lot of fun doing it.

Thumb Wars does seem a bit out of hand for regular TV. Just think, if it weren’t for new experiments in sitcoms broadening our tolerance for risqué comedy and strange new formats – like the warped Claymation of "The PJs" – maybe Oedekerk’s dueling digits would have been doomed to a late-night slot following "Celebrity Death Match" on MTV. I mean, this stuff used to be limited to the mutant aquarium of Liquid Television.

Instead, the thumbs ended up on prime time network TV. It must mean that mainstream America does have an appetite for fare that is this risky, low-budget and, for the most part, just plain stupid. OK, maybe "The Simpsons" did establish that fact years ago. But it sure is blossoming now.

We can’t give all the credit for this evolution to evening animators like Matt Groening or "Saturday Night Live’s" culture jammer Robert Smeigel. TV commercials have whetted our appetites for weird as well. After all, if we can get the humor of a waxy little Bruce Lee putting the Ninja moves on the Karate Kid after gulping a can of Nestea, we can laugh at anything – even Crunchaka and Gabba the Butt.

I’m really surprised that Thumb Wars was a special and not a pilot for an entire TV series. Just think of the merchandising possibilities. I mean, the entire set and cast would fit easily inside a Happy Meal bag.

For now, I guess we’ll have to look forward to an uncut version on home video – controversial bits included. Watch for an official release date at www.thumbtv.com.

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