I’m “biast” (con): movies based on games fill me with dread
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Movies are so dominated by women that you’d be forgiven for presuming that a new one entitled Angry Birds is likely yet another broad grossout slapstick comedy about a gang of cranky, foulmouthed gals getting into trouble and embarrassing themselves with malicious glee. (I know that I, for one, am tired of this subgenre, in which there seems to be a new entry every other week.) Sure, this movie is based on a popular mobile-app game, but the game is pure nonsense: it doesn’t have anything approaching an actual story or genuine characters. It’s a template, a framework around which to hang almost any sort of story one might care to hang on it.
So it’s downright audacious to see that the story that a rare all-male creative team chose to hang on that game is one that has been virtually taboo on the big screen: male anger (and not the sort of social condoned female anger you might expect). Yes, sometimes male anger is the butt of a movie’s joke — “Oh, look at that poor guy, his hormones are going crazy!” — and sometimes movies will (correctly) condemn out-of-control male rage, depicting it as a problem for our society, given how it inevitably leads to antisocial behavior, and bad for men, too, in how it is typically indicative of poor emotional health and low self-esteem. But that’s not what’s going on in Angry Birds: this movie supposes it is a vindication of male anger! Can you think of the last movie you saw — or even heard about! — that was about men who are angry and this is a positive thing?
I worry a bit for screenwriter Jon Vitti, whose credits are mostly in the TV realm, which we all know is a little friendlier to men than film is, and Clay Kaytis and Fergal Reilly, respectively an animator and a storyboard artist, making the leap to feature directors. (I wonder who they all had to sleep with to snag this gig!) They’ve marked themselves as niche meninist filmmakers with what is, apparently, meant to be a fun movie for kids, with political content that is frankly rather inappropriate; no one wants their children indoctrinated while watching a cartoon. I sure it will impact their ability to get future work, the dears.
There is, dare I say it, a sense of desperate male fury about Angry Birds, as if the filmmakers recognize the futility of what they’re attempting here but are going to plow on nevertheless. (One appreciates their spunk, but as has been said before, perhaps men are simply not suited for making movies.) Forcing a logical narrative onto an absurdist nonlinear interactive experience was probably never going to work in a satisfying way, and they’ve only highlighted how phony it is with their unlikely male hero, Red (the voice of Jason Sudeikis: Tumbledown, Horrible Bosses 2), who is an outcast in his community because of his outbursts; we are apparently meant to feel sorry for him because of this! In the opening sequence, he is violently rude to people he has wronged when they are understandably upset about being wronged, after which he is sent to an “anger management” course, where he meets other angry birds: Terence (the voice of Sean Penn [The Gunman, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty], though it’s really never more than inarticulate growling), Chuck (the voice of Josh Gad: Pixels, The Wedding Ringer), and Bomb (the voice of Danny McBride: Rock the Kasbah, Aloha).
It’s cute that the male filmmakers decided to buck the natural inclination to make their main characters female; their matching birds in the game are not gendered, and so most players have obviously been assuming they were female. Nice blow for male equality! But any gentle underscoring of the plight of men– er, I mean, of male birds is absent. This is a fantasy world in which birds are flightless, for instance, and yet where is the hint of tragic irony in this? Birds for us humans are a symbol of freedom precisely because of their ability to fly: you might imagine that any meninist tale of how men are denigrated because of their emotions might look to flightlessness as a sad metaphor for the curtailing of their freedom to be themselves. There are lots of pop culture references here, stuck in among the fast-moving cartoonishness, and the character of Bomb seems ready made for a reference to Tony Morrison’s heartbreaking autobiography I Know Why the Angry Bird Explodes — but nothing. Too humane and intellectual, boys? (And don’t write in complaining that I am womansplaining how men could do meninism better. They should know that it’s better not to alienate the very women they are trying to win over! You catch more flies with honey, after all. If Angry Birds truly wanted us to believe that anger is a good thing, it would go about it in a nicer way.)
Instead, Angry Birds — now I see the title as something of a defiant meninist battle cry — is all about the anger. The birds here have believed that their island is the whole world, and that there are no other creatures, but when a shipload of pigs arrive — like an alien spaceship out of the ocean blue — Red is instantly suspicious of them. He’s furious, in fact, that everyone else is being so nice and kind and welcoming to the pigs. In the real world, of course, Red would be seen as delusional, and the pigs would have no nefarious motives, because they’d know that that doesn’t get you anywhere, and would ruin a relationship before it even began. But here, Red is right! The pigs are up to no good.
There is some quite nasty stuff that comes next: a scene in which the pigs do a song-and-dance number dressed in assless chaps* — which causes all the lady birds to swoon — is followed on by Red sneaking onto the pigs’ ship to learn their secrets, during which we glimpse a copy of Fifty Shades of Green (the pigs are green) given prominent display. We are clearly meant to infer that the pigs are dangerous seducers of women — and by extension, of all birdkind, like how when we say “women” that also includes the subset of “men”; it’s right there in the word, after all. And this is a trap that Red must save his people from… something that only Red, who is awake to the danger, can do.
Red find himself astonished that the “fate of the world” is now left up to “idiots like me.” It is, and this is perhaps the most implausible thing aboutAngry Birds. A self-professed idiot male, clouded by hormonal rage, is going to save the world? I don’t think so. There’s a reason why no one else has tried to float such a notion before in movies. Let’s hope we never see it again.
*this is really in the movie