What is a kids’ movie, these days? Animated, often. Full of PG-appropriate potty humor, sometimes. Sharing a message about the goodness of family, or the warmth of belonging, or the power of individualism, usually. Wacky, inventive, a Delightful Romp … almost always.
There is one thing, though, that will be uniformly true of a true kids’ movie: It will involve, implicitly, a paradox. It will glorify the experience of being young in a world made by, and for, grown-ups—that’s what will, ultimately, make it a kids’ movie—and yet it, too, will be made for grown-ups. The jokes will be layered, so that adults can appreciate them. The storylines will be, too. The themes will address nostalgia for childhood as much as they address childhood itself. And of course they will: Adults are the ones who buy the tickets. They’re the ones who buy the DVDs. They’re the ones who decide what a kids’ movie should be, in the end, because movies may be about creativity, but they are also about capitalism.
With Storks, written and co-directed by Nicholas Stoller, the creator behind the decidedly non-kids’ movie Forgetting Sarah Marshall, that paradox might have hit its peak. This is a movie, after all, that is premised entirely on a joke that only an adult will find funny: the parent’s age-old insistence that “where do babies come from?” can be answered, definitively, by a reference to long-beaked birds. Storks is also a movie, though, that fulfills its thematic obligations—the goodness of family, or the warmth of belonging, the power of individualism—by way of one overriding theme: It is about all the crazy things people, adult people, will do in the name of their kids. It is a kids’ movie that is really, in the end, about parenthood.
Things start on the factory floor of Cornerstore.com, an Amazon-esque corporation that used to deliver babies (deliver! get it?), but has since pivoted toward deliveries of a more consumerist kind. The company’s fleet of storks are now working as, essentially, living, breathing drones; the NASA-circa-the-Apollo-program metal capsules once used to deliver babies have been repurposed to deliver smartphones. That’s all fine, until Junior (Andy Samberg), a white-collar middle manager, finds himself up for a promotion. Cornerstore’s CEO, the booming-voiced Hunter (Kelsey Grammar), insists that to prove himself worthy of the new job, Junior must first fire one of Cornerstore’s longest-serving employees: the orphan, Tulip, who has been living with the storks as the result of a botched delivery—and who has just reached the fireable age of 18.
Meanwhile, in human-land, there’s Nate, an imaginative young kid who, after being mostly left to his own devices by his well-meaning but workaholic parents (Jennifer Aniston and Ty Burrell), requests a baby brother. (One, ideally, with “ninja skills.”) Nate makes the request by sending a letter to the baby-makers up on Stork Mountain; Tulip, charming but accident-prone—and left unfired by Junior, who is too kind for corporate coldness—intercepts it. And then manages to feed it to the company’s retired-but-still-functioning baby-making apparatus (baby-making, here, seems to involve some combination of industrialized cold fusion and a Rube Goldberg machine).
Thus: a baby! Who—cue the film’s narrative driver—now must be delivered. By Tulip, who feels responsible for the infant’s well-being, and by Junior, who feels responsible for Tulip. Adventure ensues.
And it ensues weirdly, but mostly well! Storks is charming, if often nonsensical in its plot line and frenetic in its pacing. It features the voice talents of, in addition to Samberg et al, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Danny Trejo, Stephen Kramer Glickman, and, as Tulip, the veteran voice actor Katie Crown. It is generally well-written. (It’s also uncommonly derivative: Its parable of corporatism is borrowed from The Lego Movie. Its frenemies-on-a-quest narrative is borrowed from Shrek. Its parents resemble the ones from Inside Out’s, its kid resembles Toy Story’s, its avians resemble Angry Birds’s, its adoption narrative resembles The Jungle Book’s, its joke about a girlfriend who lives in Canada resembles the one made in the smash Broadway musical Avenue Q. Etc.) Overall, though, Storks is a decidedly Delightful Romp. It features a sub-plot involving wolves. It checks all the Pixar-sized boxes you’d expect such a movie to check.
But is it a kids’ movie? Not really. Not fully. Storks’s visual gags—the wolves at one point assemble themselves into a bridge, and an airplane, and a submarine—may be kid-friendly; Nate may cajole his parents, finally, into transforming their suburban home into a fun house straight out of kid fantasy. But Storks is, ultimately, the anti-Frozen: Here, adults are the audience, rather than the add-ons. Nate, trying to guilt his harried parents into spending time with him, utters lines like, “You blink, and I’ll be in college” and “Dad, you’ll be my idol for like two more years.” He yells, at one point, “I’m not a jerky teen yet! Fleeting moments, precious memories!”
There may be something for a kid in all that; these are lines, though, aimed squarely at the “Cats in the Cradle” crowd. So, too, are the movie’s many jokes about the drudgery of corporate culture, and the emptiness of internet-enabled consumerism, and the challenges of work-life balance, and the weirdness of drones.
And so, too, are the movie’s many, many jokes about the trials of new parenthood. Storks features an extended riff in which Tulip and Junior—acting as the temporary parents of the baby they are determined to deliver together—bicker about who will get some sleep while the other stays up with the infant. (Roughly: “No, you sleep!” “But I’d feel guilty sleeping while you’re staying up!” “No, it’s okay, just get some sleep!” “Okay.” “Wait, you’re going to bed?” Etc.) Junior, at one point, as he’s trying to get the baby to shut her eyes, expresses his regret that eye glue is not a thing. And at a climactic moment in the movie’s adventure narrative, Tulip, Junior, and the wolves fight each other, physically, for custody of the baby—but once they realize that the infant has finally fallen asleep, they conduct their assorted violences silently. As every parent knows: Whatever you do, do not wake the baby.
It’s another great gag—subtle, wry, an animated admission of the way babies and their insistently inconvenient needs can take over adults’ lives—but, to get it, you kind of have to be … well, a new parent. Or at least someone who understands the nuances of being a new parent. That’s true, as well, for one of the subtler jokes in a movie that is, after all, about parents requesting, rather than simply making, their babies. When Tulip, Junior, and their human charge first encounter the wolves, the two alphas, charmed by the infant’s coos, announce their intention to raise her as their own—as, yep, a wolf. There’s a canine uproar in response to this, during which one of the wolves shouts: “You’re keeping it?”
It’s a joke, if it’s a joke that all, that only an adult could understand.