by Philip Price
I see what Warner Brothers Animation is attempting to do here and I can dig it. After finding great success with “The LEGO Movie” and the fact they acquired the likes of Phil Lord and Chris Miller who directed ‘21’ and “22 Jump Street” (as well as “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs”) to helm that hit animated movie the thought of continuing to try their hand at bringing in R-rated comedy directors and seeing how they operate within the world of children’s entertainment is a ballsy, but interesting move. Much like with the case of “The LEGO Movie,” Warner Bros. was likely hoping this formula might produce something both mature and goofy with the plus of remaining consistently funny throughout the majority of its runtime. It makes sense and what better way to test said formula than with the likes of Nicolas Stoller, director of “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and the two ‘Neighbors’ movies, thus the reason we now have “Storks.” Because of this inclination to take someone known for one thing and put them just far enough outside of their element, their comfort zone if you will, I was inclined to be more interested in this seemingly agreeable animated family movie than I might have been otherwise. I love it when directors or studios cast an actor known for one type or style of work, especially comedians, and place them in a different setting where we see them challenged in new/different ways that usually result in a more fascinating piece of work by virtue of the outside influences and persona that performer brings with them. That is kind of what is happening here though maybe not to the extreme of, say, Jim Carrey in “The Truman Show.” Rather, Stoller is being challenged by the limits of a PG-rating and how far he can go with his comedy inadvertently forcing him to be more creative with how he comes up with the laughs needed for a 90-minute children's film. And so, how does all of this hype and build-up effect the final product? Well, in many ways this is a disappointment when considering the potential the film had considering the interesting premise, its insanely talented and funny voice cast and of course the presence of Stoller in the director's chair. Instead of producing anything unique or of distinguishable value, “Storks” more or less plays by the rules of Pixar and DreamWorks movies where the narrative sees a couple of characters going on a quest to achieve a goal that will allow them to discover new things about themselves along the way. There's nothing especially wrong with this structure especially when executed in fun and interesting ways and “Storks” certainly has its quirks, but more than anything the film feels far too routine to be a product of someone who should have really been challenging themselves.
“Storks” is weird. Let's get that out of the way first. It's just not weird enough to be as subversive of the typical animated film as it seems to yearn to be. One can see the ideas and intent there, especially if you are aware of the director's filmography and the fact the script was penned by Stoller as well, but just when you think it might push up against those genre conventions hard enough to break them the characters go back to adhering to the established system and we're on our merry way back to predictable town. It's kind of a shame, really, because older kids in the audience will undoubtedly be left with lingering questions about where babies actually come from, but instead of going so far as to fill in the gaps in logic and explanation that would be necessary to justify certain generations of the human races existence the film ignores this issue altogether and assumes parents will assume that once the storks quit delivering babies adults finally figured out how to use their parts to do it themselves. That premise a little testy for you? Well, all of that is without saying the reason the storks decided to stop delivering babies in the first place was due to the fact that it was essentially a tough life; the birds grew too close to the children they ultimately had to deliver and they just couldn't do it any more or they were all going to keel over from heartbreak. It is because of the fact these birds developed loving, paternal feelings for these human babies that they can no longer deliver them. This wouldn't be so strange were it simply left to backstory, but things are pushed in a weirder direction still as there are two parallel storylines taking place within “Storks,” one of which follows hardworking stork Junior (Andy Samberg) who, through a series of really unfortunate events, ends up having to deliver a child with orphan Tulip (comedian Katie Crown) to its rightful parents, but who develop into a small family of their own along the way. It's not that it's out of the ordinary to personify animals, but when animals are personified and act on a certain level of intimacy with humans things get a little icky. Somewhere here there is a metaphor for the non-traditional family and I know the movie’s heart is in the right place, but functioning as it does “Storks” hues closer to eliciting vibes of bestiality than it does ones of sympathy.
I know what you're thinking, "Don't be ridiculous! It's a children's movie" or "You just have your mind in the gutter," and maybe that's true to a certain degree, sure, but truly those are the somewhat off-putting tones that the film doles out in hopes of illustrating this idea that a family doesn't necessarily have to consist of a mom, a dad and their children. Still, “Storks” ends up not being as much about relaying a message of finding ones true calling or true self, but rather a goofy and absurd comedy that can't quite get a grasp on its own metaphor and instead favors family-movie conventions to convey what they want to relay as unconventional. Let's just look at the complicated way in which it tries to do this for further proof that the intent is fine, but the execution is far too jumbled and odd to really say what it desires to say effectively. So, storks no longer deliver babies, but instead run a company called Cornerstore.com which is essentially Amazon. Junior is the top delivery stork at the company when the movie opens and is up for a big promotion. Of course, before he is promoted to being "The Boss" his current boss, Hunter (Kelsey Grammer), requires him to complete one task. That task is to fire the orphan named Tulip who is more or less the reason storks quit delivering babies in the first place. The stork that was meant to deliver her, Jasper (Danny Trejo), became too attached and wanted to keep her pushing him to break the device that tells storks where they are supposed to deliver a child. As a result, Tulip has been raised with and by storks, but as she is more harm than good and is now set to celebrate her 18th birthday, the storks no longer feel the need to look after her. Unable to go through with firing Tulip, Junior places her in the mail room where letters were once sent to the storks from people requesting a baby. Hoping he will be able to hide Tulip and keep her out of trouble while still getting the promotion, things are turned upside down for Junior when Tulip receives a letter from a boy who discovered one of the old pamphlets that informed prospective parents how to get a baby. Tulip, as she does, complicates things by creating a baby (this is done through some sort of magical machine) forcing Junior to scramble to fix the issue by delivering the baby with Tulip before Hunter finds out. The boy who sent the letter, Nate Gardner (Anton Starkman), leads the parallel story as he's currently dealing with neglectful parents (Ty Burrell and Jennifer Aniston) and wants someone that will spend time with him thus his need for a sibling. See what I'm saying? There's a lot to dissect here.
Though “Storks” is strange in somewhat disconcerting ways there is enough here to see through some of the more troubling aspects and recognize those aforementioned good intentions. The biggest plus coming in the form that, as a parent, the film really hits you in the final act. In many ways, especially given my initial resistance to the orphan Tulip character, I was surprised to find myself empathizing with the characters as much as I did. Though overly-complicated, the film eventually proves itself to utilize those many layers to become more compelling through the course of its main quest. Tulip is at first as frustrating a character for the audience as she is to our main character despite the fact the script wanting to paint her as this living and breathing embodiment of empathy. Over the course of the film though the character builds more and more of our respect through both her actions and her selflessness. This contradicts well with the storyline chronicling Nate and the ordeal he is going through with his parents. The Gardners have become so engulfed in their jobs they are essentially the worst parents in the world. Completely ignoring Nate and making decisions based wholly on their own self-interests rather than that of their son's the film is able to give parents this ever necessary reminder that time is our most precious commodity and that it's the only thing we can't get more of. It only hurts their case even worse that Nate is such an interesting and insightful character. Most of his lines are read for comedic effect and no 5- or 6-year-old could ever be as perceptive as Nate is presented to be, but that's not the point – the point is to make his parents realize they only have so long that they'll be able to take care of him before he no longer needs them, that they'll only have so long before he doesn't look up to them anymore and only so long before he'll begin to resent them for the way they've pushed him to the back burner. This dynamic is a real highlight and though played for laughs it possesses a strong undercurrent of truth that might make some of those laughs uneasy ones. That's a good thing-not to mention the fact it does exactly what it needs to do to make us like Tulip all the more. “Storks” can be really funny. There is a running gag with wolves led by the Alpha (Keegan-Michael Key) and Beta (Jordan Peele) wolves of a pack that is just random/outlandish enough, but still grounded that it would be impossible to not at least chuckle. On the other end of that spectrum is Pigeon Toady (Stephen Kramer Glickman) who is laugh-out-loud funny on first appearance, but quickly grows old due to the film’s over-reliance on his shtick. And so, there is some good and some bad, leaving “Storks” to mostly muddle around in average territory, but had the script gone through some slight "gentrification" we might have had something truly hilarious and original on our hands.