The Angry Birds Movie, to its credit, is decidedly in the former camp. It functions, ultimately, in its human-less, broadly reaching storyline, as a parable (or, more precisely, several of them): It has things to say about colonialism (no, seriously!) and about the seductions of consumer culture, and about the compromises that must be made, in a civil society, between the individual interest and the common good. It’s a meditation on family values, and on soft power versus hard, and possibly even—via a leader who ends up being all bluster—on the political rise of Donald J. Trump.
It also features an extended scene that involves an aging bird peeing, loudly, into the sparkling waters of the Lake of Wisdom. And it caps that scene off with a bird who has witnessed the scene uttering the line, “More like the Lake of Wiz!” So this is, to be clear, not the stuff of overt philosophy (or even, in the film’s parlance, the stuff of Ludwing Wittgenswine or Francis Bacon).
But the fact that The Angry Birds Movie took its silly brand and extended it in its own way puts it in league with other recent films—not just The Lego Movie, with all its messages about the dangers of consumerism and conformity, and Inside Out, with its propositions about the workings of human emotions, but also Zootopia (which functions as, among other things, a parable about racial profiling and its consequences)—that similarly use their within-the-context-of-no-context premises as an excuse for allegory. These films aren’t set in the world of 2016. And yet, of course, they have a lot to say about that world. They take the supple symbolism of the comic book—the genre whose films and franchises are so often dismissed as “cash grabs”—to its logical conclusion: They are able to criticize a culture precisely because they locate themselves outside of it.
Which is another way of saying that these movies function, effectively, as fairy tales. They use their status as fantasy to impart lessons about reality. And: They treat their massive global audiences—the humans that have been grabbed along with the cash—not as a cause for shame, but as an opportunity for conversation.
Angry Birds, the game, since its launch in 2009, has received more than 3 billion downloads. (To put it in context, there are approximately 7.4 billion people in the world.) Humans around the world have spent billions of hours, cumulatively, playing it. The game is at once a harmless delight and a massive time-suck and a stern rebuke to the idea, espoused by the Internet theorist Clay Shirky and others, that the creative affordances of the digital world might replace television’s mindless distractions with more productive pursuits.
If Angry Birds, the game, rejects that theory, one exploded pig at a time, The Angry Birds Movie complicates it once more. It suggests that even the dumbest distractions can have some literary merit—and, in that, some lessons to impart. The film is not a masterpiece; still, in its affable cinematic serviceability, it’s evidence of one of the happier consequences of Hollywood’s mercenary impulses: the rise of movies that, due to the demands of scale, shed their cultural contexts in favor of more monomythic aspirations. We live, too many of us, in an age defined by anger: about racial injustice, about economic inequality, about a world that is changing more quickly than we are able to keep up with. The Angry Birds Movie manages to be, on top of everything else, a meditation on all that anger—one that, yes, also features one bird telling another to “shut your wormhole.”
It might not be the kind of fairy tale we want, but it’s the one we get. And the one we might keep getting for a while: The closing credits of The Angry Birds Movie, which feature birds dancing and pigs pigging and Demi Lovato singing an innocuous rendition of “I Will Survive,” hint that a sequel is already in the works.