Flying off the gigantic success of its 2009 online video game “Angry Birds,” Rovio Entertainment of Finland commissioned a script from animation film and television writer John Vitti (“The Simpsons,” “King of the Hill,” “Ice Age”) for a feature film about the birds that fly via slingshot.
Joined by animators Clay Kaytis and Fergal Reilly in their directorial debut, “The Angry Birds” is an ornithological and porcine potpourri of every bird and pig pun you’ve ever seen or heard and voiced by many “Saturday Night Live” alumni.
But let me explain the pig part, because this is where humor and conflict collide.
Red (Jason Sudeikis) is a fierce bird clown who lives with many flightless birds on a tropical island. His house is near the harbor and he likes his mostly solitary existence. Angry birds, after all, don’t have many friends.
He entertains newly hatched chicks, but after he bombs a customer in a fit of anger, he is sent to bird court and Judge Peckinpah (Keegan-Michael Key) sentences him to anger management classes.
There, he meets Chuck (Josh Gad), a yellow bird that speeds; Bomb (Danny McBride), a gentle black bird who explodes when he gets mad; and Terence (Sean Penn) a gigantic red bird who exudes ferocity. Their therapist is Matilda (Maya Rudolph), herself a recovering angry bird.
One day, a ship approaches and rather than anchor offshore, it plows into Red’s house. He is not pleased. The captain is a big fat green pig named Leonard (Bill Hader), assisted by a small pig named Ross (Tony Hale). They seem friendly but are actually there to steal eggs with an invading force of little piggies hidden in the ship’s hold (yes, for green ham and eggs) and use TNT to blow their way out to sea.
Once the pigs have sailed off with their captives, Red motivates everyone, even the retired old Mighty Eagle (Peter Dinklage) to join in the rescue of their young.
Spoilers are beyond this point.
Once at the pigs’ island, the birds discover them living in a big mess and surmise that the chicks are being held at the castle in the center of the island protected by Leonard. Sure enough, Leonard has them in a dungeon waiting to hatch them for breakfast. When the birds attack, Leonard’s fascist pig militia defends the castle.
I was invited to attend a press screening and an interview with the directors by an organization that promotes science and film. I watched “The Angry Birds Movie,” looking for signs of science but didn’t see much beyond the puns (Birds & Bees Fertility clinic, remarks about bird control, a baby bird imprinting on Red instead of his father, and psychology).
When my turn came, I asked the directors if they based anything in the film on science, even aerodynamics. They threw their heads back and laughed! “Nothing! Zilch!” They were just having fun.
“The Angry Birds Movie” is a fun film if you like anthropomorphic animation, bathroom humor (Mighty Eagle has the biggest bladder in bird movie history), endless verbal and visual puns, and explosions.
Thinking about the meaning of the film, however, gave me pause. The most dominant theme is friendship between the guys. Each male bird character has flaws that, if they were given to female characters in any other film, I would criticize as stereotypical. At the end of the movie, Red rebuilds his house and invites his guy pals in; he’s a changed bird and more open to community.
Matilda is actually kind of nice, even when her feathers get ruffled once or twice. The birds are all different so diversity is evident, as is domesticity.
What bothers me about the film is how the conflict is resolved. I think the writer may have become fascinated with the idea of “fascist pigs” as a plot device and built the action and resolution around this notion.
The eggs were taken; the grown birds, now all of them angry, go in pursuit. They are launched via slingshot from their ship (recall the video game) and use Leonard’s TNT to blow up the island to rescue the eggs, go home and restore order to bird island. At least there are no guns.
The action engages the boys and the pastel cuteness of chicks is meant to attract the little girls in the audience. In the final analysis, it’s a guy film.
“But it’s just a cartoon for kids!” I can hear the protests now. But think about it. This seemingly innocuous film is socializing young children into violence as a way to solve problems from a very early age, much like other animated films, such as “Wreck-It-Ralph” in 2012.
We don’t question the violence. It’s normal. Just like war is normal. It’s also lazy. As cultural capital goes, there’s not a lot here. Anger is channeled into might.
“The Angry Birds Movie” is a more than a proficient cause-and-effect feature cartoon. The filmmakers know their conventions. But I’m sorry they couldn’t have relied more on the birdbrains at their disposal for a smarter story than a multimillion-dollar, volatile pun fest.
[Sr. Rose Pacatte, a member of the Daughters of St. Paul, is the director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles.]