There’s a fleeting moment at the end of “Storks” rich with warm possibilities. One after another, would-be parents from all walks of life — gay, straight, single and many different skin colors — embrace their new infants, celebrating the universality of family bonds in a way that’s uniquely contemporary for a major studio release of this sort. The story leading up to it, however, falls short of such foolproof logic. “Storks” takes place in a world eerily devoid of sex, in which parenthood has been corporatized and then abandoned by a factory run by talking birds whose priorities have shifted to delivering non-human goods. Co-directed by Doug Sweetland and Nicholas Stoller (“Forgetting Sarah Marshall”) from Stoller’s screenplay, it doesn’t have the brains to wrestle with the outrageous conceit, nor the inspired humor to distract from the rampant absurdity. It’s a dumb movie in search of a sweet idea.
Needless to say, it was only a matter of time before the apocryphal tale of storks delivering infants became fodder for a family-friendly animated movie. The outcome doesn’t entirely fall short of realizing that world’s peculiarities, but it lacks both the depth and humorous insight that would make the trip worthwhile. However, the concept has some potential as a workplace satire. Speedy deliveryman Junior (voiced by Andy Samberg with his usual goofy ebullience) receives the opportunity for a big promotion from overlord Hunter (Kelsey Grammar), a big-beaked schemer who somehow holds his underling under a hypnotic commitment whenever he intones the word “boss.” (The possibility literally blows Junior’s mind, as the camera zooms out to an entire planet surrounded by explosive ripples as he contemplates the possibility of moving up in the world.) So far, so sublimely ridiculous — think “Office Space” by way of Pixar — but “Storks” rushes into a messy plot that exposes its undercooked premise.
Junior’s big opportunity comes with a compromise: He must fire “Orphan” Tulip (Katie Crown), the young woman who was abandoned at the factory by a wayward stork in her infancy who screws up her surroundings whenever she tries to help out. In the process of trying to overcome his nerves and get the words out while confronting the eager-to-please Tulip, the pair inadvertently allow a letter sent to the factory about a young boy asking for a sibling to slip into one of the factory’s baby-making machines. And out comes the baby.
So let’s rewind for a second. Apparently in “Storks,” a sci-fi contraption has the power to transform requests for infants into actual human beings. But we aren’t watching some ominous dystopian drama. This twist to the drama slips into the story mainly as an animating device to send its cheeky characters careening across the country to deliver their slobbering package to its clueless parents, learning their own affection for family bonds along the way. However, the rushed explanation for the storks’ technology keeps the movie from developing a fully credible universe. When the story occasionally shifts to the child who requested the infant (Anton Starkman), and his parents who entertain his belief that it might actually arrive (Jennifer Aniston and Ty Burrell), it’s hard to get a sense for what we’re actually a watching: Has this world that has gone sterile? Or is “Storks” just one goofy allegory for the challenges of the parenting process and explaining adult challenges to frustrated youth? Needless to say, even the cursory acknowledgement of many different family types doesn’t go far enough to help the movie stand up to the hard questions.
Perhaps it’s unfair to ask as much of a broad, silly entertainment aimed squarely at children. But “Storks” also falls short of delivering enough humor to distract from the gaps in its logic. Stoller’s script is so weighed down with goofy side-characters it barely finds room to give the central ones much depth. The pipsqueak Pigeon Toady (Stephen Kramer Glickman) catches on to Junior and Tulip’s quest and plots their downfall; his curt, smarmy demeanor runs foul after a few scenes of cardboard villain behavior. Meanwhile, a scowling, possibly maniacal old stork (Danny Trejo) stalks them from afar, only revealing his obvious intentions when the movie gets to the point where he has run his course. Lazy plot devices abound, but the animation’s so colorful and deep (nothing on this scale can settle for anything less these days), the movie’s youngest viewers won’t notice. Adults, however, should be frustrated with the half-baked ingredients behind the pretty pictures.
Or maybe they’ll get distracted, too. While Junior and Tulip contend with keeping the baby happy throughout their journey — a process naturally set to more than one annoying pop song — they deal with obstacles that include the movie’s best sight gag, a pair of wolf pack leaders voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele with the power to transform their herd into transportation devices. Add to that one very funny bit in which baby-kidnapping penguins attempt to do battle with our heroes in complete silence to keep the infant from waking up and “Storks” has a few moments of genuine comedic payoff.
However, they never congeal into a satisfying big picture. Compared to “Zootopia,” which attempted to turn its multifaceted society of talking animals much heavier metaphor for racial prejudice, “Storks” has little to offer behind its sloppy, good-natured grin. Stoller, whose “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” “Neighbors” and “Get Him to the Greek” provided a keen blend of anarchic humor and the legitimate struggles of young adulthood, seems constricted by the mainstream animated format — he’s made a movie trapped between tones. (His bizarre concept may have been better served outside the nuance-free arena of most studio-produced animation, a fate that liberated the wonderfully naughty “Sausage Party.”) Neither wacky enough to work as pure punchline, nor smart enough to bend its looniness into something more substantial, “Storks” views the world with the same confused outlook of its wide-eyed infants.
“Storks” opens nationwide September 23.