Video games have never made great source material for movies, perhaps because so much of the medium is composed of pastiches of cinema. It’s impossible to look at Resident Evil without recalling Romero’s Living Dead franchise. Recently, Hitman has resembled a sort of mix between 80s action flicks and the Bourne franchise. The films based on both of these series fail to capture audiences because they pale in comparison to the original cinematic works their video games are inspired by. But what about other video games, with less cinematic appearances? Shouldn’t they lend themselves better to adaptation? Sure, the Super Mario Bros. film is a nauseating hodgepodge of the worst scraps of 90s culture, but it’s hardly an accurate representation of the original franchise.
Along comes The Angry Birds Movie, an animated adaptation of the smartphone franchise that once ruled the world. What popular modern video game series has an appearance as simple as Angry Birds? The franchise’s success isn’t just rooted in its addictive and accessible gameplay, but also in its easily reproduced and popular artstyle. In adapting the series to film, there’s no story to account for other than “pigs steal eggs, birds fight back.” That leaves a lot of room for artistic license, and The Angry Birds Movie packs in enough entertainment that it never feels like a soulless cash grab. But along with the countless puns and parodies comes a truly troubling message of xenophobia. The Angry Birds Movie may be trying to make video game adaptations great again, but it resembles a certain presidential candidate’s philosophy in more ways than that.
The film is joyously plotless in its opening minutes, following the cynical Red (Jason Sudeikis) as he mumbles and bumbles around his home island. While the movie is titled Angry Birds, Red is the only bird that is even remotely frustrated for the majority of film. Everyone else is pretty dapper, from the sometimes funny, sometimes irritating Chuck (Josh Gad) to the refreshingly frank Bomb (Danny McBride). The frequent clashing of Red’s pessimism with the carefree bird society produces many of the film’s punchlines and this juxtaposition is used strongly in the first minutes of the movie.
However, once The Angry Birds Movie is forced to progress the story, it inadvertently sends a downright awful message to its fairly impressionable audience. The town of birds is confronted with the sudden arrival of a group of pigs who seem to pose no threat. In fact, the pigs joyously showcase fantastic inventions and perform a country-themed dance routine wearing pseudo-BDSM cowboy costumes. Despite the friendliness, Red immediately treats the farmhouse foreigners as terrorists even without any reasonable evidence to support his claim. In his eyes, the pigs have invaded the birds’ society to take advantage of it. What is even more morally objectionable than Red’s blind xenophobic accusation is that the film ends up supporting it.
The troubling message isn’t the end of the film’s problems. An ensemble of this pedigree shouldn’t be so incredibly bland. It’s a shame that the film is absolutely dominated by male characters, when a premise like this makes their implementation so easy. Aside from McBride’s portrayal of Bomb, Bill Hader’s pig leader and Keegan Michael-Key’s judge are the only other stand-outs among the cast, proving once again that celebrities make for fairly lackluster voice actors. Sean Penn is in this and all he does is grunt. That’s a funny enough gag, but his casting is also a microcosm of the film’s bland characters, all of which we’ve seen before in countless other animated movies.
While the movie is about as disposable as the smartphone series its based on, The Angry Birds Movie is still quite enjoyable, being sustained by numerous throwaway gags and a strong finale. The final act returns the birds (all of which are now angry) to their smartphone roots. The inevitable showdown with the pigs takes the dynamic of an average level of the game Angry Birds and blows it up to a grander scale. A slingshot launches our collection of heroes, but there’s also tons of explosions and a heist to spice up the basics. This is the first video game adaptation to utilize and expand upon the structure of its source material in an entertaining way. That’s worth applauding, even if the final battle itself hits familiar narrative beats.
Much like the third act, the jokes are fairly ordinary, but they serve their function. Whether it’s a surprise visual reference to The Shining or a character muttering “Flock my life,” there are plenty of puns and punchlines to enjoy throughout the film’s run. None of the comedy is groundbreaking, but most of it lands, and its varied rate of appearance is so random that many of the jokes feel like surprises. The biggest laugh I’ve had in a theater this year came from Red’s offhand comment that there’s “something not kosher about these pigs.”
And yet, that loops us back to the troubling message boiling underneath The Angry Birds Movie. In fairness, the film is fairly innocent, never attempting to indoctrinate impressionable minds. But the nonchalance of its blind xenophobia is potentially even more harmful. If it was purposeful in its messaging, I would disagree with it as opposed to declaring it an outright flaw. But it comes across as accidental subtext, and that inadvertency ends up harming the text itself.
Video game adaptations have been a mess. They’ve been a waste. Lyin’ movie studios have promised great things and never delivered. They’re nasty guys, but The Angry Birds Movie makes a promise that video game adaptations will start to win. And they’re going to keep winning. And America will win too. They’re going to win so much that you’re going to say “Mr. Movie Studio, we’re so tired of winning.” Maybe the birds should have built a wall around their island. And they could’ve made the pigs pay for the wall.
Or maybe the birds should coexist with the pigs rather than persecute them. Then they wouldn’t have to be so angry.
The Angry Birds Movie
Some great gags, a colorful presentation, a couple great puns, and a third act that draws from and expands upon the source material
A fairly bland ensemble, some tired jokes and tropes, another ending to an animated movie featuring all the characters dancing, and an accidental, yet troubling message