The Angry Birds mobile game has been at or near the top of the app charts since its initial release in late 2009, so it makes sense that the game’s addictive nature would have led to a handful of spinoffs and a bevy of copycats. What seems less obvious is a feature-length film that devotes 97 minutes to explaining the bird vs. pig premise of a game that was almost devoid of mythology to begin with. That contradiction is “The Angry Birds Movie” in microcosm, an exercise in increasing storytelling confusion more befitting of an amorphous piece of Internet-age corporate branding than a thoughtful animated film.
Angry birds fighting greedy pigs is an effective summation of this film’s plot, as there’s not much sensical storytelling cushioning to be found here. Living their existence on a secluded island populated entirely by birds, social misfits Red (Jason Sudeikis), Chuck (Josh Gad) and Boom (Danny McBride) all meet at a court-mandated anger management class. (Rage seems to be the last thing that connect this core trio, given that their main crimes seem to be apathy, hyperactivity and biological predisposition to spontaneous combustion, respectively.)
After some half-hearted attempts at bird-based world-building, an odd group of neon-green pigs, led by Leonard (Bill Hader), come to disturb the island’s status quo. Initially there under a guise of friendship (Blake Shelton ditty and all), the pigs soon abscond with all the islands’ eggs. In order to restore order to the island and lay the groundwork for the sequel, the three birds must rally various forces to rescue their unhatched infants.
Mighty Eagle (Peter Dinklage) makes an appearance as a misanthropic recluse, but like the character in the original game, his sole purpose seems to be as a character to unlock in order to complete the story. By the time birds are finally whirring their way through the air at the remote pig town, there comes the crushing realization that tired, unnecessary origin stories with pointless amounts of destruction and endangerment of innocents aren’t the exclusive realm of comic book movies.
Perhaps just as disappointing as the haphazard storytelling is the squandering of a top-flight voice ensemble. Despite boasting a cast list with some of the most dynamic comic talents in the business (Tony Hale, Jillian Bell, Billy Eichner, Hannibal Burress, Tituss Burgess, Kate McKinnon are just the start), these performers largely pop up in name only, relegated to the deep background where they barely make a dent in the overall picture. As the town judge, Keegan-Michael Key does an admirable job of creating a character with little screen time and a smaller amount of material, but he’s one of the only ones given that opportunity.
Instead, most of the attention that would have been devoted elsewhere is centered on Red, a character who, despite Sudeikis’ charms in other projects, comes across as petty and disinterested, even in his eventual moments of heroism. McBride steps outside the foul-mouthed know-it-all niche he’s lived in so well and brings surprising pathos to a lovable loser. Gad’s first moments as Chuck are a well-needed burst of energy in an already-sagging narrative, but those manic tendencies become so unfocused that every time the story has the actor start singing, it seems like a desperate bid to grab a tiny child’s flagging attention.
The only people that seem to be having any fun here are the animators, the closest thing “The Angry Birds Movie” comes to a saving grace. The rival textures of these warring species keep the overall look of the film from falling flat. The character design of the birds, from their various spherical sizes to their expressive eyes to their different feather textures do more to differentiate and characterize them than any other element of the film. There are even a handful of sequences that break from the usual CGI mold and experiment with 2-D and time-lapse stylings. But these fleeting moments of visual dexterity are carelessly wedged into the rest of the story with the same haphazard effort given to its humor.
It’s not enough that the endless parade of cultural references feel dated and devoid of actual punchlines. Most of them seem unsure of what they’re actually saying. One of the pigs is named Jon Hamm. Artwork in the Mighty Eagle’s lair has the design of Shepard Fairey’s Andre the Giant sticker, only with the reclusive bird’s face and the caption “OHEY.” There’s a book in the King Pig’s castle labeled “Fifty Shades of Green.” Observations like “That Guy Who Played Don Draper is a person,” “Street Art Is Crazy, Right?” and the acknowledgment of the existence of the color spectrum do not constitute jokes. This is a mistake “The Angry Birds Movie” makes and makes repeatedly. (It’s hard to blame this film for doubling-down on this lack of distinction, since this is a formula that’s made “The Big Bang Theory” an inexplicable ratings hit for the better part of this decade.)
Even for an animated comedy aimed at unwitting pre-schoolers, there’s a bizarre, pervasive desire to want to feel relevant to a strain of internet culture that was already feeling stale by the time the Angry Birds game ever dropped in the App Store. Of course Mighty Eagle dances around to “Never Gonna Give You Up” for no reason. Of course Red responds to bad news with a “Pluck my life.” The humor is too juvenile for audiences other than anyone still teething, but this film perpetuates an inexplicable need to invoke memes and neologisms from years when those kids weren’t even alive yet.
These anti-jokes occasionally veer into factual confusion, like when a concert meant to ingratiate the pigs with their unsuspecting bird nemeses promises “Steve Aoinki” but then shows green swine in Daft Punk helmets. During the pig castle siege, twin pigs stand at the end of one hallway chanting “Redrum!” as if “The Shining” only existed as a mislabeled Wikiquotes page.
Despite the parade of decade-old references, there’s one way that “The Angry Birds Movie” feels extremely relevant. As rival streaming services fight for hours of material to offer as part of their catalogue, this is a prime example of a frivilous piece of children’s entertainment genetically engineered to keep young ones pacified, tablet in hand. But if whatever service wins out in this forthcoming battle has nothing but an army of movies like this to offer, “The Angry Birds Movie” features an apt (and highly publicized) metaphor: Mighty Eagle urinating for close to 45 seconds into a body of water dubbed the Lake of Wisdom. Maybe at this point it’s too much to hope for an animated film like “The Angry Birds Movie” to exist as anything other than marketing fodder, but hopefully it’s not too much to ask for that #content to have a shred of substance to it.
“The Angry Birds Movie” opens in theaters on May 20.