On surrogate parenthood, extended families, and the value of playing to your strengths
Storks Warner Bros.
Director: Nicholas Stoller and Doug Sweetland
Screenplay: Nicholas Stoller
Starring: The voices of Andy Samberg, Katie Crown, Anton Starkman, Jennifer Aniston, Ty Burrell, Kelsey Grammar, Stephen Kramer Glickman, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele
Rated PG / 1 hour, 27 minutes / 2.35:1
September 23, 2016
(out of four)
Storks really makes you yearn for a simple, streamlined narrative. It includes three full storylines, and beyond that three separate subplots, and has only 87 minutes in which to contain them all. Honestly, just a couple of those stories would do, but the film insists on all of them instead of honing in on its strengths. Writer/director Nicholas Stoller and co-director Doug Sweetland spread their ideas around far too wide, almost as if they're not confident enough in any of their individual segments to commit to them in full.
That is their first miscalculation, because a lot of the material - concentrated in very specific areas - is really strong. The problem is, the good is too often subsidized by the bad. Or perhaps it's that the bad is bad only because it wasn't given enough room to develop, what with competing with all those other narrative threads and all. But the bottom line is the film would have been a lot better off if it had simply narrowed its storytelling options down a bit. I suppose it shouldn't come as any surprise that, even in the realm of animation, Stoller comes off every bit as undisciplined as he was in live-action efforts like The Five-Year Engagement or Neighbors, but nor should it come as a surprise that, when he's on-target, Storks really lights up. I don't want to take away from its many delights, nor from the fact that in a lot of ways it ultimately works, in spite of itself.
In fairness to Stoller and Sweetland's choices, it makes sense to create a varied collection of characters and locations, given that the movie is essentially an ode to extended families. The impulse to spread the story around seems natural. It takes a village, as they say, and in this case that means not only a comfortable home with willing parents, but also a mischievously aggressive older brother, a lonely bird with high career ambitions, a teenage orphan, and an entire pack of militarily disciplined wolves. A veritable army of surrogates. Which should be quite enough to take care of one pink-haired baby girl, but only as long as they can survive plane crashes, bad weather, faulty GPS, hostile penguins, and sinister corporate overlords and their faithful lackeys. Y'know, typical parent stuff.
If this sounds overstuffed, then you can see the problem. Storks wants to be a buddy road movie and a light suburban drama, a corporate satire and a chase movie, a madcap adventure and a Hallmark card. A movie can be all of those things, but this one doesn't exactly know how. Its biggest weakness is its human core, a story of a lonely kid named Nate (Anton Starkman) trying to both reconnect with his overworked parents (they run a business from their own home, but seem to rarely spend time with the kid) and convince them to give him a little brother. He takes matters into his own hands, ordering a baby from Cornerstore (a Stork-run outfit that once upon a time specialized in baby delivery). The parents (voiced by Jennifer Aniston and Ty Burrell) don't seem too worried, operating under the assumption that Cornerstore is no longer in the baby business. (Which it's not, except ... well, we'll get to that in a sec.) So the film spends half its time with this family, a prolonged bonding experience designed to get them ready for the new addition they're not even technically aware is on its way.
It's not especially funny or moving or good or bad, but as an ordinary gooey center, it's fine. It only starts to get in the way when it distracts from the parts that work so much better. See, little do these parents know that, due to a technical error at the Cornerstore factory - which is high up on a mountaintop in the clouds somewhere - Nate's order did indeed go through, and the baby, pink hair and all, was created, and Junior (voiced by Andy Samberg) is indeed on his way to deliver it. Alongside him is Tulip (Katie Crown), the sole human at Cornerstore (due to a delivery error 18 years prior). And it's that unlikely pairing - the stork trying to advance his career and the klutzy teen he didn't have the courage to fire (a mistake that could cost him the promotion he so covets) - that is the comic and emotional heart of the film. What starts as a desperate attempt to get a job done - and clean up a potential mess before it gets noticed by higher-ups - quite accidentally becomes a pseudo-family road trip, with Junior and Tulip not only getting attached to "Diamond Destiny" but becoming her surrogate parents, up to and including things like bickering about whose turn it is to wake up in the middle of the night to feed her.
When Stoller focuses on this corner of the story, the movie is pretty terrific, not only because the family dynamic works so well, but because it leads us through the film's best comic setpieces - in particular the wolves, led by Alpha and Beta (voiced by the comic duo Key & Peele), who become deeply enamored with Diamond Destiny almost immediately after setting eyes on her, and spend the rest of the movie trying to take her away from Junior and Tulip. (There's also a great action sequence, executed as noiselessly as possible to as not to wake the baby, involving some nasty little fighting penguins.)
Meanwhile, the film manufactures a more perfunctory conflict in the form of Pigeon Toady (Stephen Kramer Glickman), a spineless employee at Cornerstore who notices Junior's big mistake and, in an attempt at a corporate coup, decides to take the news right to the top. (Kelsey Grammar voices the company CEO, obviously.) With his affected tone of voice and body language, Toady is like a combination of a yuppie, a bro, and the obliviously arrogant wannabe you knew in high school who pretended to have a girlfriend "at another school." He's insufferable as a character and he's meant to be - but his appearances add nothing but plot distraction to a movie that doesn't need it, so his abrasiveness doesn't pay off. And that's kind of the problem in a nutshell. Storks is borderline excellent in its best moments - namely anything involving Junior, Tulip and the wolves. And it sticks its landing, an inclusive and far-reaching series of emotional climaxes that resonates on a dozen different levels. Which is what makes it so frustrating that the film wastes as much time as it does on storylines that flat-out do not work. A simple road comedy would have more than sufficed.