Children’s cartoons from most every film studio these days adhere to the Pixar model — especially in terms of themes and messages.
“You’ve got a friend in me,” and “friends stick together” and the like seems to be as deep as such movies’ screenplays go. They’re following the Hippocratic Oath of children’s entertainment — “First, do no harm.”
But there’s something unsettling about the film based on the popular “Angry Birds” video game — something almost sinister, and I’m not just talking about the game’s smart phone app reputation as “leaky,” as a data-mining tool used against those who download it.
In a sea of kids’ TV and films that preach diversity and pound an emasculating wimpiness into tiny noggins — think everything that came after “Arthur,” “Clifford, the Big Red Dog” and “Dragon Tales” on PBS, for instance — here’s a movie that embraces tantrums, lack of self-control, cynicism, violence and fear of “the other.”
Is it just about greedy pigs swarming over Bird Island and stealing all the birds’ eggs, and about slow-to-catch-on birds being shot into a pig fortress — missile, style — to retrieve them?
What are we to make of these invading/migrating pigs? What is the intellectual underpinning of Bird Island’s icon, the slovenly, inept and vain “Mighty Eagle” whose followers lose faith in him? An analogy for America, with this movie a commentary on a gullible but happy, peaceful Europe/West threatened by gauche, marauding “pigs”?
Nothing in any film is truly “here by accident,” and that’s especially true of animation. What was the veteran TV producer/writer who scripted this, Jon Vitti (“The Simpsons”, “The Office,” “The Larry Sanders Show”), trying to say or to slip in as subtext?
Unlike say, “Wall-E,” whose sermon about slothful, destructive consumption was out in the open, or “Inside Out,” which treated every facet of a personality as valuable and what makes us human, or “Zootopia,” with its blunt message of tolerance, “Angry Birds” (the film) is harder to deconstruct and parse.
The story concocted from the game concerns “Red” (the voice of Jason Sudeikis), who never really fits in on Bird Island because of his temper and eagerness to think the worst of others. He’s insulting, abrasive and a loner.
“Anger is weed growing in our garden,” he is lectured. So something must be done about Red.
He’s sentenced to anger management therapy for one blow-up too many, and that’s where he meets the speedy but snarky Chuck (Josh Gad) the explosive Bomb (Danny McBride) and hulking, simmering Terence (Sean Penn). Matilda (Maya Rudolph) presides over them and runs their group therapy, to no avail.
Then the pigs show up. The pig everybody meets (Bill Hader) is amusing and charming and obsequious. He comes bearing gifts. All the flightless, conflict-avoiding birds let the pigs — there are others the head-pig isn’t admitting came with him — flatter them, entertain them with their country music hoedowns and the like.
But the pig ship hit Red’s house, and he’s not falling for them. He gripes, protests and embarrasses all the birds with his rudeness to their guests, who wear COEXIST bumper stickers on their polluting vehicles, but have this “Twilight Zone”-“To Serve Man” eagerness to their actions and “consume everything” lust in their eyes.
Red seeks counsel from the legendary Mighty Eagle (Peter Dinklage), a pot-bellied icon who caresses his many trophies and pees into his own “Pool of Wisdom” at the top of Bird Mountain. He’s no help.
But when the pigs reveal their true nature, Red must lead the birds out of their complacency and into the fight that the video game is famous for.
“We’re birds. We’re descended from dinosaurs. We’re not SUPPOSED to be nice!”
Sight-gags — a woodpecker is the courtroom artist/newspaper photographer, pecking out images on wood. There’s a Birds & Bees Fertility Clinic, and the pigs are into Pig Latin, Ham Radio and DVDs (“Kevin Bacon Is “Hamlet”!”).
Sudeikis is well-cast as a bird whose “cardinal sin” is cynicism, but he has virtually nothing funny to say. The thinly-disguised avian profanity, “Well, pluck my life” is about it. Gad, McBride and the rest of the voice cast is similarly wasted.
There’s a funny 3D gag or two (never enough to warrant the higher ticket price). And the combat finale is visually inventive and explosive.
But if it’s not about the laughs, and this isn’t, then what is this exercise in brand marketing really going for?
The “Twilight Zone” episode that this ties to, based on a Damon Knight short story, had an anti-communist subtext. Was Vitti trying to turn Red into an anti-Red, or something broader? Anti-consumption/anti-capitalist? Anti-immigrant?
Children’s entertainment has long had more going on than is obvious on first blush, from Babar the Elephant to Peanuts to “Wall-E.” “The Angry Birds Movie, disquieting as it feels, is certainly trying to shove something between the lines.
But the effort is so clumsy and the lines themselves so limp that the entertainment that’s supposed to be the vehicle for this murky message fails, and with it the movie.
MPAA Rating:PG for rude humor and action |
Running time: 1:37