If you imagine the arena of theatrical film releasing as a huge games arcade, then computer game-to-film adaptation Ratchet and Clank, released in the U.S. by Focus Features, is the weedy kid whose feeble high score is about to be annihilated by a cocky rival: The Angry Birds Movie. This animated feature, directed by Fergal Reilly and Clay Katis, is based on an already hugely successful franchise (if now fading from playground favor), first launched by Finnish game company Rovio in 2009 and which has already spawned a series of cartoon shorts. The brightly colored, quirkily humorous games, puzzle-oriented but grounded around angles, arcs and brute Newtonian physics, cannily appealed to every quadrant of the demographic map, even moms. So this cinematic origin story has a massive fan base to draw on, arguably bigger than those for the upcoming adaptations of the more macho combat games Warcraft and Assassin’s Creed. All Sony has to do to make a substantial summer hit out of this is not mess it up.
Fortunately, for this recently often unlucky company, The Angry Birds Movie is way better than most viewers would expect. That said, expectations are probably pretty low, given the ground-grazing bar set by the majority of game-to-film adaptations. Even for onlookers who’ve never played any of the games, the whole concept isn’t even “so last year,” it’s so 2011. Admittedly, the storytelling is not in the league of Pixar or Disney at their best, and with the male-dominated cast it’s a bit embarrassingly retrograde in terms of gender balance, even compared with Ratchet. But the animation punches well above its weight with properly Looney Tunes-standard sight gags; polished, highly expressive character design; and rendering so intensely computed nearly every barbule and rachis on each individual feather is visible.
Given that there’s such a paucity of narrative in the original games and the shorts are nearly dialogue-free and all about slapstick anyway, the screenplay by Jon Vitti (Alvin and the Chipmunks), based on a story credited to John Cohen, Mikael Hed and David Maisel, hasn’t got much material with which to build up characters from the start. (Mind you, The Lego Movie probably had even less to work with.) Vitti’s script sets out to answer the core existential question many might have asked themselves: Why are these birds so angry? Why don’t they fly? And what’s with the green pigs?
We never do find out exactly why they’re all flightless birds, but it turns out that life on Bird Island is by and large fairly content, peaceful and good-natured. So much so that naturally testy-tempered cardinal Red (voiced by Jason Sudeikis) is made to feel like a social outcast among the happy-clappy residents and is ordered by the court to attend anger-management classes run by Matilda (Maya Rudolph), an indeterminate species with pretty mauve-colored plumage but her own barely suppressed issues.
Red’s fellow students include Chuck (Josh Gad), a hyperactive yellow canary, and Bomb (Danny McBride), a usually placid blackbird who has a long fuse (literally) but little control of when he explodes. Finally, there’s massive, monosyllabic bruiser Terrence, who is voiced by Sean Penn (a bizarre accidental irony given that he just won an apology and settlement toward the charity of his choice from Lee Daniels for accusing him of unproven domestic violence).
One day, a ship covered in gears and tracks and sporting a massive wrecking ball pulls into the harbor. It is captained by Leonard (Bill Hader), a green pig whose beard-but-no-mustache hipster facial hair immediately marks him as dubious. Only Red is suspicious when Leonard and his crew mates, whose numbers swell at an alarming rate, start dispensing free food and catapults to help them fly, and sure enough it turns out one should always beware of pigs bearing gifts. The visitors steal that which is most precious to the birds, and Red ends up leading an attack on their citadel using the very catapult the swine left behind.
Given the need to keep things simple for younger viewers, the filmmakers were probably compelled to ensure the plot traces a simple trajectory, a smooth parabola that guarantees what comes up must come down. But despite the predictable parameters, there’s room for some wry, adult-aimed humor that adds zest: allusions to films like The Shining and classic Tex Avery gags; meta references to photo-bombing and spoilers; and best of all, gags that play on the avian nature of the characters. For instance, at one point Red rallies the troops by reminding them how they’re descended from dinosaurs. Elsewhere, a mommy bird prepares her chicks’ lunches the way any bird-brained matriarch would: by regurgitating into paper bags.
If the screenplay verges a little too much on the homiletic, with messages about family and accepting who you are, in terms of storyboard-storytelling (a specialty of co-director Reilly) the quality of visual imagination is very high. Befitting of the nature of the original games, spatial relationships are exceedingly clear, and the intricate, Rube Goldberg-like structures the film’s world builds up make sense mechanically right up to the moment they get blown to smithereens. At one point, early on in the pic, the anger-management students are encouraged to draw in order to vent their frustrations, and Red drafts a series of storyboards showing Leonard skewered and pummeled and broken. “I call this one ‘Catharsis,’” he says, revealing the gory last picture. If that’s the way it works for animators, the team who made this deliciously violent, cartoony work must be the most chilled-out crew in the business.
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Production companies: A Columbia Pictures, Robio Animation presentation
Cast: Jason Sudeikis, Josh Gad, Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, Kate McKinnon, Sean Penn, Tony Hale, Keegan-Michael Key, Bill Hader, Peter Dinklage
Directors: Fergal Reilly, Clay Kaytis
Screenwriters: Jon Vitti, based on a story by Mikael Hed, Mikko Polla, John Cohen
Producers: John Cohen, Catherine Winder
Executive producers: Mikael Hed, David Maisel
Production designer: Pete Oswald
Visual effects supervisor: Danny Dimian
Editors: Kent Beyda, All Garrett
Music: Heitor Pereira
Music supervisors: Manish Ravel, Tom Wolfe
Casting: Linda Lamontagne
Rated PG, 97 minutes