“America: The Motion Picture,” Netflix’s first R-rated animated feature, offers a satirical, revisionist reworking of the American Revolution, in which a chainsaw-wielding George Washington (voiced by Channing Tatum) fights the British with a merry band of Colonial misfits to avenge the death of his BFF, Abe Lincoln (voiced by Will Forte). They include beer-worshiping Sam Adams (Jason Mantzoukas), gender-bending science wiz Thomas Edison (Olivia Munn), “horse-racist” Paul Revere (Bobby Moynihan), one-armed Apache leader Geronimo (Raoul Trujillo), and handy blacksmith John Henry (Killer Mike).
It’s like an absurd 2D cross between “Archer” and “Clone High,” which isn’t surprising, since it’s directed by “Archer” producer Matt Thompson and produced by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who are rebooting “Clone High” for HBO Max, while writing and producing “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse 2,” which is co-written by “America” scribe Dave Callaham (Marvel’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”).
“Dave showed us this crazy [live-action] script he had written 10 years ago to just to blow off some steam, never thinking that anything would come of it, and when we read it, we thought it would be a crazy idea to make it,” said Miller during a recent interview with IndieWire.
The producing duo took it Tatum while they were working on “21 Jump Street,” and when they decided to make the switch to animation, they immediately thought of Thompson because of his wild sensibility and ability to make it at his Atlanta-based Floyd County 2D animation studio. Then, it was straight to Netflix, because there was no way any studio would make an R-rated animated feature with such gore and nudity (primarily with George in the sack with Judy Greer’s Martha).
“What Dave and I have always said is: This is a story about the founding of America as if it was told to you by an absolute moron,” Miller said. “And Netflix embraced it, R-rated and all, there was never any pushback. It was an opportunity to be as bonkers as we wanted to be and to expand the breadth of what you can do in animation, and they very clearly understand that.”
Added Lord, “Dave and Matt are such smart filmmakers and it’s part of our mission to help our friends make cool things. And this is wonderful satire. Dave is a special voice in our business and we were heartbroken that somebody who had done something so creative couldn’t get this made. We wanted to make sure it got made … and super well.”
“America” marks Thompson’s feature directorial debut, and flaunts a constant stream of historical non-sequiturs (Forte reprises Honest Abe out of time following “Clone High” and “The LEGO Movie” franchise, and Simon Pegg voices King James in place of King George III), along with a slew of movie riffs (including “Star Wars,” “RoboCop,” The Avengers,” and “Alien”).
“It’s a movie that’s never been done before with this much thrown at a revisionist history satire,” Thompson said. “But maybe we’re going to confuse you a little and make you think that that’s how the Titanic really sank.” Or that Benedict Arnold (Andy Samberg) was really a Wolfman.
But making a feature was more complicated than stringing together three episodes of “Archer.” Fortunately, Thompson had two great mentors in Lord and Miller, who kept the story from going off the rails with too many gags. “If you look at ‘Archer’ and the other shows I’ve made [‘Dicktown,’ ‘Sealab 2021’], they’re about people making fun of each other and getting the comedy through being dirtbags,” he said. “This was a total shift for me yet still keeping the same things that I enjoy. It was mostly [Lord and Miller] making sure it was infused with heart and hope and likability.”
The overall design was Nazi World War II meets Colonialism and the characters were more graphic novel-style caricatures than found on “Archer.” The animation team at Floyd County did most of the work during last year’s pandemic, alternating between the feature and the series, only with a lot more support help on the back end of production. However, they upgraded to Toon Boom Harmony as their animation software after years of using Adobe Illustrator.
Meanwhile, Thompson reveled in the multitude of movie references they were able to throw in, especially a relatively obscure one: “Most people hate the depiction of hacking in movies,” he said, “and what is celebrated as the worst is ‘Swordfish.’ And so, when George cracks the code, most people won’t realize that it is almost a shot for shot recreation of the code-cracking scene from ‘Swordfish’ with Hugh Jackman. The background has a giant swordfish as an added Easter egg.”
Most important, though, was having the rebels and the voice cast resemble the diversity of today. Yet the pivotal character turned out to be Edison, a Chinese American (voiced by Chinese American Munn) dedicated to proving that science makes the best super weapon.
“Talking to Dave, we really wanted a strong female counterpoint to male white privilege,” added Thompson. “It was important to Dave, as a Chinese American writer, to have Edison be a Chinese American woman and have her push back on everything that these men were trying to do. She never took any crap from anyone. She basically ends up being our Colonial version of Iron Man and she wins the day.”
Considering the timing of the release, this also turned out to be an epiphany for Thompson. “During the middle of production we realized what was happening around us in the world and the importance of science,” he said. “And to have that message come out through that character right now, at this point in our history, was extremely profound for me.”
“America: The Motion Picture” is now streaming on Netflix.