In this age of billion-dollar, candy-colored, fully digital child-distraction movie-making, the new chatty-animal adventure comedy Storks wouldn’t have to be good in any way to be wildly profitable. It often is good, though, hilariously so, its too-familiar misfits-become-a-family storyline enlivened by flights of lavish comic invention. Its set pieces, especially a howler about a pack of wolves going gaga for a plumply adorable human baby, live up to the last-century promise of the WB logo that opens the film. At its best, as when lead stork Junior (Andy Samberg) face-plants again and again into sheets of glass that birds simply cannot see, this shit is looney tunes.
At its worst, it’s more of the clamorous same, the usual anthropomorphized CG whatevers hanging onto out-of-control vehicles while comedians in sound booths somewhere shout “Come on!” or “You’ve got to be kidding me!” Both of those old reliables make the cut here. Just as in the Iron Man movies, where Robert Downey Jr.’s face, covered in flickering lights, is forever reacting to dangers it never shares a frame with, I diverted myself during some of the chases by trying to figure out whether the actors actually knew which threats it is their onscreen characters were at any given moment confronting.
In between Storks‘ bumptious best and worst are its uncertain quiet patches. These are a relief from the sugar rush/freeze headache of the action, but they also advance patently awful lessons about parenting that play as false here as they did way back in Spielberg’s Hook. While the storks are caught up in their mayhem, down in suburban America a mom and dad who are making it quite well in this economy must learn to turn off their work phones and remember how to play. In this case that means putting their small business on hold to help their lonely son add a tornado slide and landing platform onto their roof.
There are plot reasons for this: The boy has written a letter to the storks of mid-20th-century pop-culture myth, the ones who represented a fanciful, sex-fearing notion of where babies come from. The parents have patiently explained that their one child is enough already, but still they get caught up in his imaginative building project, which I guess is the healthiest possible way to involve their elementary-schooler in baby-making. But still, this zealous family time rankles: Hollywood must understand that there’s a medium between workaholic neglect and abandoning your livelihood to remodel according to your child’s idiotic whims. Do you think the hundreds of animators and designers responsible for Storks‘ relentless beauty and bustle were allowed to knock off for a couple days if their kids needed playmates?
That kid sends a letter, but it turns out the storks have long since left the baby-delivery business, as people make them just fine on their own. Instead, the birds now serve as something like Jeff Bezos’ fantasy drone fleet, carrying packages to our homes from CornerStore.com, an online shopping conglomerate whose warehouse teeters atop an art-deco skyscraper at some place called Stork Island. If something in you quails at this thought, relax: Directors Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Neighbors), Doug Sweetland and their writers satirize Amazon rather than celebrate or synergize. It’s a relief that, after two decades of Pixar demanding we worry over the inner life of our consumer goods, Warner Bros. isn’t asking us to romanticize the means by which they’re shipped to us.
Every-stork exec Junior gets paired up with Tulip (Katie Crown), an orphaned human girl who lives with the storks for reasons not worth getting into. She’s an inventor who bungles everything, and Junior is tasked by his boss with firing her from CornerStore — but he can’t, of course. By “every-stork” I mean he’s the kind of white-dude comedy corporation-man go-getter who grows to discover that maybe he doesn’t want that big promotion after all — not if it means selling out his friends, by gum! Orphan Tulip (and the overworked parents in the audience) might enjoy the luxury of feeling free to contemplate leaving high-paying jobs over matters of principle.
Junior and Tulip become a family themselves, of course, when she lucks into receiving that lonely boy’s letter and accidentally puts the storks right back into the baby business. All it takes to get that going is to slip the missive into a slot connected to the defunct baby factory. Junior, certain a new baby will enrage his CornerStore boss, tries to shut the mechanism down the second it starts running. That stirs conundrums: Does life begin when the baby plops out, or when the mail slot closes, or when the boy first licks his stamp and seals his letter? And how is one kid qualified to make this decision for the family?
We can say this for the storks, though: They take responsibility once the baby is born. Junior and Tulip vow to deliver the baby before Junior’s boss can even discover it exists. Cue crashes, chases, on-the-run bonding and — every time things quiet down — much cooing at the infant and the softening of Junior’s company-man heart. It’s programmatic, but the comedy gets ever more extravagant, building to a sequence of the baby factory pumping out infants at full tilt, a vision suggesting Busby Berkeley, Metropolis and the manufacturing of Xavier Roberts’ Cabbage Patch Kids. (When this hits home video, parents might wait until the kids are asleep and then rewatch it high.)
Storks peaks with Junior and Tulip’s battle against a squad of baby-charmed penguins. The combatants rage in silence, desperate not to wake the kid up. The scene is something rare in studio animation: wild without being noisome, quiet without being mawkish. Please let it be ripped off again and again.