Chuck (Josh Gad) and Red (Jason Sudeikis) on the beach in The Angry Birds Movie (Sony Pictures Entertainment)
There is an inevitable tension in writing about The Angry Birds Movie. On the one hand, the film represents everything that is wrong with Hollywood and the material studios choose to release into theaters. It is a blatant cash grab that takes the trend of the moment then capitalizes it long after the trend has hit its peak. It is the type of decision that has resulted in movies based on video games, theme park attractions, toys and board games. This is a troubling trend that should not be encouraged. On the other hand, the film itself happens to be pretty good.
This should not be completely surprising. Cash grabs that depend on affection for a product don’t necessarily have to be terrible. There is much to recommend about the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, Tomb Raider worked so well that a remake is in order and The Lego Movie earned such legitimate critical acclaim that it was considered an actual injustice that it was not nominated for an Oscar. The illegitimate reasons why a studio might greenlight a movie don’t doom a film to failure, and The Angry Birds Movie feels closer to The Lego Movie than Super Mario Bros.
The pleasures of The Angry Birds Movie should not be overstated, but they are there. The material is clever enough that it should entertain the adults who chaperone the children who make up the film’s target audience. Much of the credit should go to writer Jon Vitti, a longtime producer of “The Simpsons” who also wrote the venerable animated series’ feature film, as well as Alvin and the Chipmunks. Vitti knows how to take name-brand material and make it palatable, if not terrific, and he does that here.
For the voice talent, The Angry Birds Movie enlists a number of “Saturday Night Live” veterans like Jason Sudeikis, who plays the leading bird, as well as Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader and Kate McKinnon, alongside other sketch comedy players like Keegan-Michael Key and Ike Barinholtz. All of them do solid work, but the real attraction is Sean Penn, who ranks only slightly behind Daniel Day-Lewis as an actor few would expect to find in a kid’s movie based on a smartphone game. Perhaps only The Angry Birds Movie would be right for him, considering how it promotes the idea that expressing anger can have its benefits. The contempt the birds have for the invading pigs is only slightly dissimilar to Penn’s relationships with the paparazzi.
The actual plot of The Angry Birds Movie should be easy for any of the millions who have downloaded the app to guess: It ultimately comes down to birds versus pigs. Being a children’s movie, there are certain lessons to be learned about accepting others’ differences, and while none of the didacticism is overdone, it still pales in comparison to the more clever and surprisingly topical lessons of Disney’s Zootopia. The focus of the film is less on the plot than on the visuals; the appeal is more about launching the birds into the air at the pigs than the reasons why those birds are launched.
The very idea of taking every popular trend and expanding it to feature length is not one that should be encouraged. Still, as look as Hollywood studios keep turning games and rides into movies, there is at least some consolation that films like The Angry Birds Movie might still turn out OK.
The Angry Birds Movie
Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures Entertainment
In theaters May 20
Films are rated on a scale of 5 stars (must-see), 4 stars (exceptional), 3 stars (solid), 2 stars (average) and 1 star (unworthy).