Nicholas Stoller is so blisteringly talented he can make a pop culture joke in an animated kids film work.
It’s not that there’s some great story to the film itself giving him the leeway, although there’s a clever idea here about storks giving up baby delivery and opening CornerStore.com, an online shopping site. Junior (Andy Samberg) is the best delivery stork the company has, and he’s about to be rewarded for it with a promotion to Boss after the current boss, Hunter (Kelsey Grammer) moves up to Chairman. But first, he’s gotta fire “The Orphan Tulip” (Katie Crown), the last baby the storks ever made. The stork that was supposed to deliver her got too attached, and lost her address in his delirium. She’s been a well-meaning liability ever since, inventing machines to help storks better do their jobs, only to have them constantly blow up in the company’s face.
Still, Junior can’t bring himself to send her away. Instead, he sticks her in the abandoned mailroom in a last-ditch effort to minimize her impact. At the same time, a young boy, who doesn’t realize that storks have thrown their wings up and left babies to biology, has just written a letter asking them for a baby brother. Piper, not knowing any better, puts the letter through, and all of a sudden, she and Junior have three days to deliver a baby and get back home without anyone knowing.
It’s a clever idea, but it leads to a pretty standard road movie with a message about the meaning of family. That’s not a complaint so much as it is a statement of where this film is starting from. I’ve always felt that you can cover for familiarity with a strong execution, and what Storks has going for it is unfettered energy and a commitment to the absurd that can make the most basic plot sing and turn the dumbest pop culture joke into something wonderful.
The joke happens midway through the film. The secondary antagonist, Pigeon Toady (Stephen Kramer Glickman), has tracked down Junior and Tulip and discovered that they’re making an illegal baby delivery. With the information he has in hand, Pigeon Toady sees a unique opportunity for advancement.
“How do you like me now?” he mutters evilly to himself.
Then he chuckles thoughtfully and repeats: “How you like me now…”
Yep, cue the sequence where he sings The Heavy’s “How You Like Me Now” as he makes his way back to Hunter. If you hear yourself groaning, that’s probably because you just punched yourself in the crotch to distract yourself from the pain such an idea inspires. Like the laziest Dreamworks gag that the premise might remind you of, the joke is sold on Pigeon Toady’s short, wide stature and atonal, conceited voice. Unlike a lazy Dreamworks gag, it has been planned and executed by a filmmaker who knows what he’s doing from his work on Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Him to the Greek, and Neighbors. Stoller leans into it, shores up the sequence with a bunch of other minor gags, paces it with energetic cutting, and long before it can wear out its welcome, the sequence ends and is never mentioned again. There is no full-length sequence of Pigeon Toady singing over the end credits. It’s just one more deranged non-sequitur in a movie so chock full of them it could bring Tex Avery back from the dead just long enough to nod his head meaningfully at Stoller and call him “Son.”
Now, it’s probably more accurate to say that executive producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller (key members of Warner Animation’s creative braintrust) are a larger direct influence on this film. Its emotional spine is present in a way Avery never would have cared for, and it isn’t willing to shatter the 4th wall like he was (though it’s certainly happy to let its characters comment on the improbability of certain beats). Between the ridiculous ideas at work and the exaggerated reactions to those ideas, though, there’s still a slight but meaningful resemblance to Avery at his most batshit insane.
That insanity ends up benefitting the film. Stoller always had a gift for mixing absurdity with honest, effective drama, and in that tradition, Storks never feels like it’s coasting on mayhem. Samberg and Crown deliver terrific performances that can get surprisingly heavy without the film feeling like it’s suddenly changing gears, and that gives Stoller room to punch you in the mouth when he needs to remind you of the emotional stakes. Tulip never felt like she had a family, while Junior, who always hated delivering babies, is starting to understand just what makes them worthwhile. No matter how crazy it gets, Storks is always building off of that, and that allows it to be a movie that’s more filling than simply 87 minutes of absurdity.
Having said that, the absurdity is the clear star of the show. Storks is a welcome burst of sunshine going into the doldrums of fall. Give it a spin if you’re looking for a quick cinematic pick-me-up.
Storks is now playing.