The Angry Birds adaptation has no concept, no imagination, and strangely, not much anger, either
The Angry Birds Movie Columbia Pictures
Director: Clay Kaytis and Fergal Reilly
Screenplay: Jon Vitti, based on the video game created by Rovio Entertainment
Starring: The voices of Jason Sudeikis, Josh Gad, Bill Hader, Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, Peter Dinklage, Keegan-Michael Key, Kate McKinnon and Sean Penn
Rated PG / 1 hour, 37 minutes
May 20, 2016
(out of four)
That the birds are angry is of no consequence. It is merely a (lazy) starting point - the first thought thrown out at the brainstorming session about how, exactly, to adapt the Angry Birds video game into a narrative feature. How about if the birds were in - get this - anger management counseling?! Of course. It was the easiest possible idea to start with, so how could anyone resist.
Ultimately, that has nothing much to do with the story, which is a fairly traditional one about a societal outcast who has to save his town from invaders, gaining the acceptance of his community in the process. That is the extent of the imagination required to make this movie, which races along at the speeds we expect from by-the-numbers animated fare and provides little to no elaboration on its core idea, nor on its excuse for a narrative. The anger-management conceit is flimsy connective tissue that never develops into anything useful.
Anger is a fruitful resource for comedy - look no further than last summer's Inside Out - and yet the filmmakers could find no real way to connect it to narrative, or theme or ... well, anything. It offers the film a few disconnected scenes/gags that establish its main character and his accidental sidekicks as angry, but otherwise it's irrelevant. Bird Island is under sneak attack from the visiting Piggies, only Red (voiced by Jason Sudeikis) realizes it, and his anger has virtually nothing to do with it. The birds being angry birds was presumably the primary directive for making this movie in the first place, so the filmmakers basically could have gone in any number of directions, provided that basic prerequisite was met. But instead of driving the comedy or the story, anger is a peripheral component - an obligation rather than a necessity.
We could yap all we want about why this adaptation even exists - yes, it's a stupid idea, a cynical corporate tie-in, merely one among many other brand-reinforcing offshoots and spin-offs of the juggernaut game franchise - but if we must have it, the least it could do is try. Instead, it does its best to blend in, to be as non-specific as possible. Angry Birds is a Saturday-morning cartoon with a longer runtime and a bigger budget. Seemingly most of that budget was spent on the voice cast (it certainly wasn't spent on visual detail), which is made up of some of the best comedic talent around, and also Sean Penn.
But even the voice talent is conspicuously misused. Sudeikis has the affable, unassuming tone of voice that makes him a natural for regular-guy types*. He's effortlessly likable. But his voice contains none of the volatility to hint at the rage supposedly bubbling underneath his character's red, feathered surface. Even during his violent outbursts, it sounds like he's just talking loudly - not screaming. There's just no explosiveness in him. This is a voice role for a John Belushi (RIP), or a Jim Carrey. Or, as much as it pains me to say it, even Adam Sandler. (Logistically, his brand recognition would probably get in the way in this case. But if you need a personality that can be meek, mild, likable, even pitiable, but with a trace of fury always lingering, he's kind of your man.)
* This is not to say "regular guys" are his only lane - he's proven plenty of comic versatility. But visceral rage is not in his wheelhouse.
Instead, Red's big, angry eyebrows are the performance - not Sudeikis. And those eyebrows - so recognizable even for those of us with no experience playing the video game - also shed some light on the unmistakable laziness of the film's joke-writing. Red's eyebrows are both his distinguishing feature and his greatest source of discomfort and self-consciousness. They've been made fun of since his childhood. When someone brings attention to them or laughs at them, it sets him off. And the movie's idea of everyone's cruel, vicious nickname for Red is ... "Eyebrows."
Just "Eyebrows." Not even Mr. Eyebrows or Captain Eyebrows or Peter Gallagher. No, just plain old Eyebrows. Sick burn, screenwriter Jon Vitti. Sick burn.
Much of the comedy is similarly aimless. An abrupt The Shining reference here, a couple of F-bomb substitute jokes there. A bit of pissing and farting. One example: Among its bird population, the film includes a mime, whose only purpose is to break his silence with a drawn-out "Oh my goooooood" reaction line after a dramatic moment. Yet the joke has no actual function - the line is spoken only moments after the mime first appears on screen, so it has no impact. The entire function of the mime is that single gag, and yet the filmmakers never bother to properly time it or execute it.
Big picture-wise, am I nitpicking? Of course. But it's indicative of the poor level of execution that runs rampant throughout the film, regardless of the harmlessness of its intentions and the talent of its cast. As the voice of Leonard - the charismatic leader of the invading Piggies, having made a journey all the way from Piggy Island - Bill Hader is, unsurprisingly, the standout voice performance, Harold Hill and Daniel Plainview by way of Charlton Heston.
But Angry Birds itself can't match Hader's innate instinct for interpreting material. To the film's credit, it moves along briskly - its 97 minutes rarely drag - but it basically has no use for itself, or for its source "material" (for lack of a better word). I'd accuse it of having contempt for its video-game roots if I were convinced it had invested any emotion whatsoever (not least one as perceptible as contempt) into the final product. But it's more apathy than contempt. And if there's one thing a movie built around angry birds - or angry humans, or angry anything - fundamentally cannot afford to be guilty of, it's an absence of emotion.