“Cash grab” is so elegant, as an epithet. Not only does it highlight one of the fundamental tensions of an industrialized Hollywood—movies made for Money, versus movies made for Art—but it also accomplishes that neatest of rhetorical tricks: It treats commercial success as an implicit artistic rebuke. Ugh, that movie exists just to make money. Ugh, another sequel/reboot/franchise/brand extension. Ugh, another movie with “properties” instead of “characters.”
It’s also possible, of course, that a movie might prove popular and thus lucrative precisely because it has artistic merit, just as it’s possible that the factors at play in a Hollywood cash grab—an increasingly globally minded studio system making movies that are as broadly human and relevant as possible—might actually be a good and democratizing thing.
In that sense, there’s something wonderfully pure about The Angry Birds Movie, which is a cash grab of the most nakedly cashgrabby strain: Here is a movie that is itself a brand extension, and one that’s been extended from a brand that got popular entirely on the basis of its own whimsical nihilism. Here is a movie with such pretensions toward global universality that it does away with humans entirely. Here are the basic stakes of the cash grab—cinema-for-the-spreadsheet and cinema-for-the-soul—colliding, in the form of a movie that came from a game that is best known not for entertaining people so much as distracting them. Can the result of that be any good at all? Can capitalism, so unfettered, produce anything of artistic value?
In this case: Sure! The Angry Birds Movie is really not bad. It is actually very actively okay. The film has taken its bird-brained brand—nouns and verbs and an adjective, unsullied by sentences—and used it to construct characters and plots that are certainly serviceable, and possibly even inspired. It takes its core components (pigs, explosions, slingshots, rage) and combines them in a way that checks all the boxes you would expect a film like this, an ambitiously chirpy product of the tentacular Hollywood studio system of 2016, to check: It layers kid-friendly gags with subtler, for-adult jokes; it offers, along the way, several unobjectionable lessons about life and those who live it; it has really good animation. It also features the vocal talents of some of the best comedians out there, among them Jason Sudeikis (Red, the angry protagonist), Josh Gad, Bill Hader, Maya Rudolph, Peter Dinklage, Kate McKinnon, Keegan-Michael Key, Tituss Burgess, Ike Barinholtz, Hannibal Buress, and Tony Hale.
The plot goes, basically, like this: Red, a resident of the vaguely tropical and stridently happy-go-lucky Bird Island, is antisocial to the point of misanthropy (misornithropy?). And the feeling, among his fellow feathered islanders, is mutual. After an unfortunate incident involving a bungled cake delivery for a youngster’s “hatch day,” Red is brought to court by the chick’s parents—and then sentenced to, yep, anger management. As Red reluctantly undergoes a program that involves yoga and poetry-writing and Talking About Feelings, a ship arrives on the island. Out of its hulking body steps a green pig, Leonard, who brings with him delicious food (wine, candy, and—natch—pigs in blankets) and distracting entertainments (pigs, in this universe, are extremely fond of line-dancing, disco, trampolines, and Blake Shelton).
Red is the only one who doubts the pigs’ intentions. He tries to warn his fellow birds that the pigs’ visit to Bird Island—the “New World,” the pigs call it—might pose a danger. The birds ignore him. They simply keep eating and dancing and engaging in scenes that allow the film’s screenwriter—Jon Vitti, who is best known for his work on The Simpsons but is also responsible for Alvin and the Chipmunks—to make many, many pig-and-bird puns. (There are, strewn about the movie’s environs, HAM radios, and a billboard advertising Calvin Swine, and references to The Eagles, and to Kevin Bacon’s appearance in Hamlet, and to Jon Hamm. There are utterances of “Pluck my life” and, to parents with a large brood of chicks, “You guys ever thought about bird control?” Etc.)
It might lack the creative vision of Inside Out, and the artistic confidence of the stridently gonzo Lego Movie; still, The Angry Birds Movie is surprisingly effective as a stand-alone feature. Movies in the game-to-screen vein, whether Tron or Doom or Battleship (or, soon enough, Tetris), can go pretty much one of two ways: They can either embrace their own constraints, using their initial narrative vacuity as an opportunity for absurdist allegory in the manner of The Lego Movie... or they can drown in them, via characters that make no sense and plots that make even less (oof, Battleship).
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.