When the comedy duo Wulffmorgenthaler launched their daily comic strip in the Politiken newspaper in 2003, the genteel, liberal-minded paper was lashed by a storm of complaints from readers doing spit-takes with their morning coffee over the sheer volume of politically incorrect violence, sex, nudity, bodily fluids, blasphemy and taboo feelings.
Since then, Danish readers and the rest of the world – the strip is carried by more than 300 newspapers worldwide, including Die Welt in Germany and The Washington Post and The New York Daily News in the US – have embraced the irreverent humour of comedian, screenwriter and director Mikael Wulff and artist and director Anders Morgenthaler, commonly known as Wulffmorgenthaler. Meanwhile, they have been expanding their universe with books, TV series and a podcast.
Now they have become kid-friendly.
The duo's first feature together, 'Monty and the Street Party', based on their children’s book of the same name, is a madcap animated story for the whole family. When 10-year-old Monty’s mother leaves his father for crossfit instructor Pierre – "a prime specimen of manhood" – Monty tries to save his parents’ marriage by personally organising the annual street party, a surefire way to bring the family together again.
The Monty universe is the two co-directors’ first project aimed directly at kids – even if kids have been looking over their parents’ shoulders all along.
"We think of ourselves as doing satire and comedy for adults. But in fact, kids and teens tend to be our early adopters," Wulff says.
"There is something childlike about our style – in Anders's line and how we work with dolls. In 'Monty and the Street Party' we really just faced the fact that we have a large audience of kids and made a film especially for them from the get-go."
A kinder, gentler edge
The choice of a younger age group dovetailed with the duo’s wish to tell a story with more uplift and less provocation.
"We are used to always go right to the edge. Normally we like to be outrageous and say things we aren't supposed to say. This time, we felt like pulling back a bit. In 'Monty', we wanted to tell a story that finds its humour in the offbeat, zany and whimsical instead of insulting people just for the fun of it.
“I hope the film still has edge and pace, but we wanted to make a story with a gentler basic tone that was more generous and accommodating, and would have the whole family leaving the cinema feeling up," Wulff says.
Most of all, the film should entertain and make for "an escapist experience with room for playfulness and laughter in a jubilant state of inanity and buffoonery", as Wulff puts it. This includes an extended sequence about a bouncy castle’s journey through world history, a standing joke about a guy slamming his door in Monty’s face maybe 200 times in a row and a colourful cast of neighbours, notably the quintuplets next door who are all called Allan and nuns on stilts.
The characters and the gags come to a head at the street party. The idea of setting the story in this arena first occurred to the filmmakers after Morgenthaler attended a street party in the suburb where he lives.
"A street party presents a cross-section of middle-class Denmark, bringing together kids, teens and old people at an annual event despite the conflict and dysfunction. It was a good arena for jokes and themes about neighbourliness and family issues," Wulff says.
Divorce is a big deal
The film also has a serious agenda: de-stigmatising divorce for kids.
"Half of all Danish marriages end in divorce. A lot of kids witness their parents splitting up. That can be pretty awful, and maybe it’s hard for them to talk about it with their friends. We want to demystify the phenomenon of divorce and hopefully be a support for kids who are going through that experience."
While the film is sincere about Monty’s feelings regarding his parents’ divorce, the filmmakers also just wanted to tell a funny story. As Wulff puts it, "Watching a movie doesn’t have to be deathly depressing just because it’s about a serious issue."
Far from it. They aimed to make a feel-good story that inspires hope in all generations.
"We and a lot of other humorists have spent the last many years cultivating an edgy and destructive brand of comedy. We have relished tearing ideals down and icons apart, and holding nothing sacred. But now we feel the need to say that some things in life are sacred. Some things are worth fighting for. Pure emotions do exist. Kids do want their childhood to make sense.
"We’re telling a story where kids succeed in putting the pieces back together, and do it with a smile on their face. We still maintain our all-destructive sarcasm in private and in our other projects, but in this film we wanted to make the sun shine."
The character of Monty is key, because he’s so full of energy and initiative and drive. Plus, as the duo’s characters tend to do, he embodies emotional extremes.
"We think of Monty as a true Wulffmorgenthaler character, because he is either extremely happy and enthusiastic or extremely sad and melancholy. The Wulffmorgenthaler universe is not subtle. We paint with a pretty broad brush, bordering on caricature. We want to make a film that has substance, of course, but more than anything we want to put on a good show."