Over the course of hundreds of classic animated shorts, certain gags—like walking on air before plummeting to the ground—used to recur across different series or even studios. It makes sense that some of that general cartoon language would be revised and replaced with new conventions for the era of computer animation. It’s a shame, though, that so many of these new recurring gags are barely gags at all—just a series of hacky reflexes that viewers, particularly kids, have been trained to find funny.
For example, a lot of animated movies break into ultra-slow-motion for moments of slapstick, complete with slowed-down vocals. This happens no fewer than four times during The Angry Birds Movie, including twice in the first 10 minutes. Why is this supposed to be funny? In these particular cases, it doesn’t add more detail to the cartoon pratfalls. It only belabors them, while depriving the movie’s potential for breathless speed. But again and again, Angry Birds returns to the well, assuming that imitating the way other cartoons look, or making a goofy noise, will cause something funny to just kind of happen. And for kids, such cynical prompting may well work.
Like a lot of modern studio animation, The Angry Birds Movie wants to cynically prompt adults, too, so families can share the experience of being duped. For this portion of the audience, the movie recruits a truly impressive roster of comic talent to provide voice work, sometimes for only a few lines: Jason Sudeikis, Bill Hader, Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, Kate McKinnon, Peter Dinklage, Keegan-Michael Key, Tony Hale, Jillian Bell, Tituss Burgess, Hannibal Buress, and Ike Barinholtz all play birds and pigs derived from the popular mobile phone game.
There’s only so much voice actors can do to juice animated gags, of course, but the screenplay matches this comic-heavy cast with Jon Vitti, who wrote for The Simpsons, Saturday Night Live, and The Office, among shows that match the comic pedigree of this cast. Unfortunately, the Vitti who clocks in to write jokes for birds based on a mobile phone game is apparently the same Vitti whose name is on some of the recent Alvin And The Chipmunks movies, which means he barely writes jokes at all. In their place are cutesy buzz phrases out of a bad sitcom: “good talk,” “spoiler alert,” “TMI.” It’s a minor miracle that no one says “don’t go there” or “awk-ward!”
The movie’s dialogue is so generic that Red (Sudeikis), the outcast bird with the furrowed, furry eyebrows, barely registers as angry. It turns out, the Jason Sudeikis persona isn’t all that compatible with a simmering rage; the movie insists that Red has antisocial levels of fury, but most of the time he lands somewhere between sarcastic and put-upon. Early in the movie, Red is sent to anger management class, where he meets the even less angry Chuck (Josh Gad) and Bomb (McBride). Their therapy sessions are interrupted by the arrival of Leonard (Hader, amusingly smarmy), a pig leading an expedition to the birds’ island. Most of the bird population welcomes the pigs, while Red regards them with skepticism. Eventually, Red, Chuck, and Bomb seek out the island’s iconic Great Eagle (Dinklage, the only actor besides Hader who gets a few chuckles) to find out how to thwart the pigs’ secret, nefarious plans.
Because this is all a perfunctory way to imitate the birds-versus-pigs gameplay, the movie gives seemingly little thought to what it’s telling kids (or, for that matter, adults). This is a story where the hero’s suspicion of visitors who don’t look or act like the species he knows proves correct when it’s revealed that they’ve arrived on the birds’ island to kidnap and devour their children. It turns out that the most authentically angry thing about Red is his unspoken but clear isolationist streak and mistrust of immigrants.
With its ugly character designs and ugly story both chained to the game’s aesthetics—Sony made this movie, but not through the talented in-house studio that animated Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs—all that’s left are the incidental gags, most of which are woeful. Some of them barely make sense, like when Red, Chuck, and Bomb climb up the wrong mountain in search of the Great Eagle, and the movie then breaks into time-lapse footage of Bomb just sitting there for some reason. Other attempts at mirth are mercenary even for a movie based on a video game, as when the pigs delight their bird hosts by putting on a “cowboy show” for the sole reason of inserting a Blake Shelton single that will play again over the movie’s dance-party end credits. In other words, it’s all arbitrary—and not because of cartoon whims, but because most of the movie is lazily retrofitted for a variety of marketing opportunities. Some kids will probably like it anyway. But some kids also like toy commercials and singing chipmunks. It doesn’t mean they should actually watch them.