Hey, you “Indiana Jones” fans. Before you rush on out to buy that Indy 4-disc DVD set (which goes on sale today), why don’t you offer up a little thanks to the guys who supposedly kept Steve Spielberg and George Lucas from digitally altering “Raiders”: “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone.

Okay. Quick show of hands here: How many of you actually like the new improved version of “The Lion King” that made its DVD debut earlier this month? Particularly that Jeese-I-thought-that-this-was-a-lousy-song-in-the-Broadway-show-but-it’s-even-worse-now new musical number, “The Morning Report”?

For the life of me, I can not understand why – these days – certain movie makers feel that they MUST revisit their earlier films and make unnecessary changes and additions. In Disney’s case, this usually involves reanimating various sequences that supposedly weren’t up to snuff but actually contain some questionable content that the Mouse wants quietly excised. Or folding in a new song – with the hope that this move will be enough to convince people who already own this particular picture on video to now spring for the DVD.

But – in this one particular instance — I have to acknowledge that the Walt Disney Company is NOT the worst offender here. For – if we’re really going to talk about the two people who have made the most unnecessary changes to their own motion pictures – then we have to turn our attentions to George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.

Arguably, these two gentlemen have directed and/or produced some of the greatest popcorn flicks of the late 1970s and early 1980s. “Jaws,” “Star Wars,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “The Empire Strikes Back,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Films that were perfect pieces of entertainment – just the way they were.

But then — with the advent of digital filmmaking – Lucas and Spielberg suddenly decided that perfection could be improved upon. Which is why these two once-brilliant filmmakers opted to such lame-brain changes to their earlier films. Like as having Greedo shoot first in “Star Wars IV: A New Hope” and replacing all the federal agents’ rifles with walkie-talkies in “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.”

That’s why (me personally) I was dreading the release of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” on DVD. The very thought of what George and Steven might do to “improve” one of my favorite films just sickened me. Why for? Because I didn’t want a new, improved Indy. I liked “Raiders” just the way it was.

So – through friends at Skywalker Ranch — I had been keeping track of the “Raiders” redo. What sequences were supposedly slated for improvements, etc. And – based on what I’d been hearing from folks deep inside ILM – this project really was a go for Fall 2002. With the new, enhanced version of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” scheduled to make its debut on DVD in the Fall of 2003.

But then … late in the Summer of 2002, Lucas and Spielberg abruptly changed their minds. The word now was that the DVD version of “Raiders” would have no improvements made to it whatsoever. Other than cleaning up the print, rebalancing the color and remixing the sound, the film that we’d watch on our home entertainment center would be the exact same movie that we’d all seen in theaters back in June 1981.

What supposedly caused George and Steven to change their minds? Two words: “South Park.”

As strange as this may sound, but – allegedly – it was “Free Hat,” a particularly brutal episode of this animated Comedy Central TV series (which originally aired on July 10, 2002) that supposedly made Spielberg and Lucas have second thoughts about adding any digital enhancements to “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

What was it exactly about this one episode that reportedly made George and Steve cancel the “Raiders” redo project? Funny you should ask …

“Free Hat” opens with Stan, Kyle, Cartman and Tweak seated in South Park’s cinema, the Bijou. A preview is unspooling as an off-screen announcer is heard to say:

“Coming this summer. It’s the classic film that changed America. ”E.T.: The Extraterrestrial,“ the new, redone version for 2002. All the E.T. effects have been digitally upgraded. All the guns have been digitally changed to walkie-talkies. And the word ‘terrorist’ has been changed to ‘hippie.’ ”

Stan complains, saying “Aw, dude, why would they do that?” Cartman concurs, given that “… hippies and terrorists are the same thing.” Kyle corrects Cartman, explaining that the real reason that “… they changed ‘terrorist’ to ‘hippie’ to make ‘E.T.’ more P.C.” Which – to Stan’s way of thinking – is “Gay.”

But then another trailer appears on the screen, as the off-screen announcer dramatically proclaims:

“Coming this summer! It’s the motion picture that changed America. ”Saving Private Ryan,“ the re-release. Where the word ‘Nazi’ has been changed to ‘Persons with Political Differences,’ and all their guns have been replaced by walkie-talkies.”

And – sure enough – up on the Bijou’s big screen is a scene from the revamped “Saving Private Ryan.” The Landing at Normandy in all its bloody glory. Only – in this version – all of the soldiers are carrying walkie-talkies instead of guns.

Stan continues to complain, saying “Why the hell do these directors keep updating their movies?” But then the previews are over and the main feature is about to begin. As the house lights dim, the off-screen announcer is heard for one final time:

“And now for our feature presentation: the classic re-re-re-release of ‘Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.’ In this version, the word ‘Wookie’ has been changed to ‘Hair Challenged Animal” and the entire cast has been digitally replaced by Ewoks.“

Upon hearing this, Stan, Kyle, Cartman and Tweek are furious. The boys exit the theater and immediately demand their money back. Only to be told by the Bijou’s manager that they’re out of luck.

As the boys walk away from the theater, Kyle starts complaining.”Why don’t they leave those movies alone?“ he says. ”We liked them the way they were.“ Tweek chimes in with a somewhat deep thought: ”Don’t you see what this means? All our favorite movies are going to be changed, and updated, until we can’t even recognize them anymore.“

Stan decides to take a stand. He says that ”It isn’t fair for those a**hole directors to keep changing their movies and making them different! Movies are art, and art shouldn’t be modified!“ Which is why he proposes starting a club that will protect classic films from their directors. So that these movies can’t be messed with.

Of course, given the way the world operates in the ”South Park“ universe, the boys soon find themselves on ”Nightline“ with Ted Koppel. With Kyle saying things like ”We believe that films have to be taken away from people like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas because they’re insane.“

Which – of course – is the cue for Spielberg and Lucas to suddenly pop on the program. The animated version of Steve offers a spirited defense of his decision to alter ”E.T.,“ insisting that ”… all we’re doing is trying to reach a new audience with our movies. As the makers of dreams, we like to speak for the children.“ Kyle then chimes in: ”Ah, I thought that we were speaking for the children.“ With Cartman backing him up by saying: ”Yeah, we’re children.“

Angered by Cartman’s comments, Spielberg sputters: ”You little brat!“ Quickly regaining his composure, the animated version of the Academy Award winning director continues his defense. ”You darling children don’t know what you’re talking about. Changing ‘E.T.’ was the best thing I ever did.“ Kyle tries to reason with Steven: ”Dude, don’t you see that it’s not? It’d be like changing ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’!“

Spielberg and Lucas both immediately spark to Kyle’s comment. ”Wait a minute,“ says Steven. ”What’d you say?“ George chimes in: ”That’s brilliant!“ Spielberg continues: ”Yes. Change ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’! Why didn’t we think of it before?!“ Kyle – immediately regretting that he ever made this suggestion – screams ”Noooo!“

Of course, now that Spielberg and Lucas have decided to digitally alter ”Raiders of the Lost Ark,“ it’s up to Kyle, Stan, Cartman and Tweek to save the day. And the only way to do this is to break into Skywalker Ranch and steal the original negative of ”Raiders of the Lost Ark.“

It’s in this sequence that ”South Park“’s writers really being pouring on the ”Star Wars“ and ”Indiana Jones“ references. After the boys are caught in Skywalker Ranch’s film library, Kyle appeals directly to George – using dialogue that was lifted straight from ”Return of the Jedi.“

Kyle: It’s not too late to do what’s right. Give us the print. There’s still some good in you, Mr. Lucas. We know there is.

George Lucas: (Hanging his head in shame and turning away) It is too late for me, boys.

Kyle tries to lure Lucas back from the Dark Side, so to speak. He reminds George that ”You yourself led the campaign against the colorization of films. You understand why films shouldn’t be changed.“ Lucas counters with ”Well, that’s different. These are my movies. I made them, and I have the right to do whatever I want with them.“

That’s when Stan steps forward and – speaking for film fans everywhere – says: ”You’re wrong, Mr. Lucas. They’re not your movies. They’re ours. All of ours. We paid to go see them, and they’re just as much a part of our lives as they are of yours.“

Kyle then chimes in: ”When an artist creates, whatever they create belongs to society.“ Lucas – clearly wavering under the power of the boys’ argument — says: ”Have I become so old that I’ve forgotten what being an artist is about?“

Seeing his chance, Stan says ”Give the print to us so that we can protect it from Spielberg and anyone else who wants to alter it.“ Lucas – as he starts to hand the boys the ”Raiders“ original negative – states ”Perhaps… you are right.“

But — just as Stan is about to claim the can of film from George – a door bangs open and someone cries ”Stop!“ It’s Steven Spielberg, accompanied by three walkie-talkie toting goons. Spielberg convinces Lucas to give him the ”Raiders“ negative by muttering darkly ”Don’t forget: You belong to me.“ After telling the boys that ”I’m sorry,“ George gives the film can to Steven.

Cackling wildly, Spielberg tells his guards: ”Now take the children prisoner! You troublemakers shall be my guests of honor at the premiere of the NEW ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’!“ The boys try to elude the goons, but only Tweek is actually able to escape.

A few moments later, in a scene that’s lifted directly out of ”Raiders of the Lost Ark,“ Spielberg is leading a group of people through a desert canyon on their way to the premiere of the revamped version of the movie. Just as they did in the original film, four litter-bearers are carrying a large packing case on two poles. But – instead of containing the Ark of the Covenant – this box contains the ”Final Print – Raiders of the Lost Ark – 2002.“

Steve, George and their old friend Francis Ford Coppola (Who is also infamous for reworking his own earlier films. Witness ”The Godfather Saga“ as well ”Apocalypse Now Redux“) are leading the three goons as well as Stan, Kyle and Cartman (who have their hands tied behind their backs). It’s just then that Tweek appears on a nearby hillside. And – just like Indy did in the original film – the freaked-out fourth grader is packing a bazooka.

In a beautiful little twist to the story, the Steven Spielberg character in ”Free Hat“ now starts acting like the villainous Belloq from ”Raiders of the Lost Ark.“ Fanning himself with his hat, Spielberg says: ”Your persistence surprises even me.“ Also stepping in another character from the movie (I.E. the sadistic Nazi), Coppola states: ”Surely you don’t think you can escape from this premiere.“ Tweek – in Indiana Jones mode – says: ”That depends on how reasonable we’re all willing to be. All I want are my friends.“

This sequence in this episode of ”South Park“ is a film geek’s dream. A beat-for-beat riff on the similar scene in ”Raider of the Lost Ark.“ The sequence reaches its satirical apex when Spielberg – again channeling for Belloq – challenges Tweek to ”… Blow (the box) back to God. All your life has been the pursuit of seeing a great film! This new version of ‘Raiders’ has digital effects beyond your wildest dreams! You want to see it screened just as much as I. Son, we are simply passing through history. This is improved history.“

In the end, Tweek can’t bring himself to blow up the new, improved version of ”Raiders of the Lost Ark.“ Which is why he eventually finds himself tied up in the theater, along with Kyle, Stan and Cartman. As the premiere begins, Stan (Just as Indy warned Marian) warns his friends: ”Close your eyes … Don’t watch the movie, you guys. It’ll be terrible. Close your eyes!“

And – as it turns out – Stan is right. The digital enhanced version of ”Raiders“ really is terrible. So horrible that (in another great life from the original film) it causes Lucas and Coppola’s faces to melt and Spielberg’s head to explode. The revamped version of the film also manages to kill everyone else who’s attending the premiere.

Everyone except Stan, Kyle, Cartman and Tweek. Who – after everything goes quiet – open their eyes again and survey the carnage.

Stunned by the devastation that they’re seeing, Cartman pretty much sums it up for everyone by saying: ”Man, that new version must have sucked b*lls.“

This was – without a doubt – one of the strongest, meanest and funniest episodes of ”South Park“ ever produced. By that I mean: Spielberg, Lucas and Coppola had been teased before. By other TV shows, comics and comedians, even ”Mad“ magazine. But never before had this trio of supposedly revered filmmakers been so brutally filleted.

For days afterward, it was all that people in Hollywood could talk about: ”Did you see this week’s episode of ‘South Park’? Man, they totally trashed George and Steven. Made them both look like greedy idiots.“

And Lucas and Spielberg didn’t like being thought of as greedy idiots. Being the subject of this much ridicule really didn’t appeal to these two filmmakers. Which is why George and Steve supposedly began talking about whether it was actually wise to go forward with the redo of ”Raiders.“ To leave themselves open to this sort of criticism.

Mind you, Lucas and Spielberg wouldn’t ever admit that this particular episode of ”South Park“ was what eventually persuaded them to leave ”Raiders of the Lost Ark“ alone. If anything. George and Steve made an elaborate public show out of shrugging that particular program. Insisting that – yes – they got the joke. That they were both honored and very flattered to be the subjects of such ripe satire on Comedy Central’s No. 1 program.

Spielberg even went so far as to send a letter to Trey Parker and Matt Stone, thanking them for including him in their show. Matt described Steve’s note as being almost schizophremic. ”The nicest, nastiest letter I’ve ever gotten.“

But – seriously, folks – can it really be a coincidence that – just weeks after ”Free Hat“ originally aired on Comedy Central – Spielberg and Lucas opted not to go forward with production of a digitally enhanced version of ”Raiders of the Lost Ark“?

Matt and Trey certainly don’t think so. They seem almost gleeful in their recent appearance on the VH1 TV special, ”VH1 Goes Inside South Park,“ when Stone and Parker claim that they’re the ones who actually got the ”Raiders“ redo cancelled.

So – those of you who are sitting down tonight to watch that all four discs of your newly purchased collector’s edition of the ”Indiana Jones“ DVD and are thrilled to find that ”Raiders of the Lost Ark” is just as you remember it (with no appearances by a CG Jabba the Hutt or unexpected celebrations on Coruscant) – please keep in mind that you have Stan, Kyle, Cartman and especially Tweek to thank.

It’s pretty amazing what a cartoon character can accomplish, don’t you think?

Your thoughts?