Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Winging It: STORKS


Storks is a rather unlikely animated family film. You can think of it as either a broad contemporization of the ancient European myth of large white birds delivering children. And you can say it’s a wacky cartoon about where babies come from brought to you by a Pixar alum (Doug Sweetland, of the energetic rabbit v. magician short Presto) and a writer-director of vulgar R-rated comedies (Nicholas Stoller, of Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Neighbors). Either way it sounds improbable that it’d work, let alone be sweet, gentle, and good-natured. Nonetheless, here it is, a genial, amusing animated comedy that takes flight in lots of unexpected silliness and cleverly developed metaphor. You may question the need to reinvigorate and reinterpret the old storks legend. I don’t know what they’re teaching in health classes these days, but maybe a candy-colored kids’ movie about how loveable babies are, how easy they are to get, and how they can heal a broken family is not exactly a totally helpful message. Still, Sweetland and Stoller throw themselves into their high-concept with upbeat energy and a winning sense of fun.

When the story begins, storks have stopped delivering babies. Instead, their warehouse perched at the top of Stork Mountain is a distribution hub for CornerStore dot com, and they pride themselves on speedy delivery. With no more messy, demanding babies to fuss with, productivity is up and profitability is way up. Because you’ve seen this setup before, you know it’s a good thing that’s bound to be bad. The movie takes a bunch of component parts from other family movies of this ilk – a conventional journey narrative, character arcs of positive self-discovery, and workaholics who need to slow down and appreciate down time with family – and grinds them through a slapstick machine, making pleasant and enjoyable entertainment out of it. A stork on the precipice of a big promotion has a big problem when the one human around – a girl whose name tag was broken at birth, so she’s lived her entire life with the birds – inadvertently sends a dead letter into the dormant baby-making machine. Now the stork and the girl must work together to get the new baby to her parents before anyone realizes their mistake. Madcap goofiness ensues.

The filmmakers create a fairly typical CG animation style of rounded, squishy surfaces, but slather on a sheen of stretchiness that’s more malleable and rubbery than other studios’ house styles. Freed from the Pixar/DreamWorks/Sony/and so on mold, the movie is free to exercise its dusting of cartoony elasticity as it goes through familiar paces. Is there any doubt that the blustering bird boss (Kelsey Grammer) will be defeated, the toady pigeon (Stephen Kramer Glickman) will get his comeuppance, and the busy human parents (Jennifer Aniston and Ty Burrell) will grow closer to their adorable moppet (Anton Starkman)? Of course not. But what saves the movie are its loopy line-readings and whimsical nonsense. The slimy pigeon is a scene-stealer, a mushy Valley Guy accent stumbling through his vacuous scheming. A pack of wolves (its leaders voiced by Key and Peele) can form bridges, boats, and more with their fast reflexes and groupthink sync. Penguins do battle in silence, trying not to wake the baby. There are a lot of silly touches embellishing the edges of the familiar paces. My favorite was a bird singing a song to which he doesn’t know all the lyrics, the subtitles inviting us to sing along devolving into garbled gibberish right in step with him.

That’s the fun on the margins, though. Keeping the core throughline fun are the leads, a frazzled stork (Andy Samberg), way in over his head and desperate to prove himself even with a broken wing, and a cute, weird girl (Katie Crown), a determined and endearing string bean with a frizzy mop of red hair. The performers approach the material from odd angles, chirping and swooping around what in other hands would be obvious punchlines and sentimental button-pushing. In a movie built on a succession of improbable ideas, perhaps the most unlikely is the one that trusted an audience to care about the friendship between a stork and a girl, not to mention their commitment to caring for a babbling infant while taking her to her rightful family. It teeters on the edge of unbelievable, but somehow the movie is energetic and amiable enough, and the voices enjoyable enough, to sell it. In the end the whole zippy, cuddly thing is even a little moving in its story of humanity and diversity beating the soulless corporation, bringing joy back to families of all races, sizes, and compositions. You could do a lot worse than that.

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