2016 has been a very turbulent, divisive year with its big movie releases, despite its heavier-than-usual dose of hype. As much as people continue to squabble over the merit or lack thereof in big live-action blockbusters like Ghostbusters and Suicide Squad however, it’s also tough to argue that this year’s animated blockbusters have universally performed better than expected, both with moviegoers and critics. Kung Fu Panda 3, Zootopia, Finding Dory, Kubo and the Two Strings, The Little Prince and The Secret Life of Pets have all been huge hits with audiences (even if Kubo and the Two Strings had more of a cult response at the box office, and The Little Prince was pulled from theatrical release in the U.S.), and rightfully so, as they’re clearly great movies! Only Ice Age: Collision Course seemed to be a major dud with critics and audience feedback (not counting widely-disliked foreign import, The Wild Life), and flopped at the box office domestically (despite huge success internationally), and that’s probably because the Ice Age franchise should have been put to pasture years ago.
That animated movie hot streak of 2016 has even managed to bleed into September, infamously known as one of the worst months of the year for any genre of mainstream movies, one often serving as the post-Summer slump period where studios just dump whatever garbage that they can’t market at any other time of year, along with a handful of more experimental Oscar grabs. Surprisingly though, with Warner Animation Group finally throwing their own hat in the animated movie ring rather late this year, Storks serves as a very pleasant September surprise, one with plenty of entertainment value for kids and adults alike.
What may surprise you most about Storks is that it’s a passion project by Nicholas Stoller. Yes, that Nicholas Stoller, one of the modern writing and directing bigwigs of beloved R-rated comedies like Neighbors, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and Get Him to the Greek. I can’t imagine what possessed Stoller to suddenly write, produce and co-direct a goofy, hyperactive animated movie for children and families, much less for Warner Animation Group, which is still a fledgling studio in the animation medium, especially when Stoller has almost exclusively worked with Universal in the past. Despite those questions though, Storks is still an enjoyable reprieve from the dreary September gloom, and even if you don’t have little ones to bring, this is definitely one of the most fun and appealing cinematic options in this difficult month of big screen apathy.
Storks is a twist on the ancient fable of babies being delivered by storks, instead of, well, the way we all know they’re actually made. In the world of Storks however, the titular birds have been re-purposed into an Amazon-like delivery service, bringing packaged goods across the world, rather than infants. This enterprise is overseen by Kelsey Grammer’s head stork, Hunter, one of the funniest characters in the movie, who is about to ascend to being the chairman of his company. Having to appoint a managing successor, Hunter chooses Andy Samberg’s Junior, an energetic but somewhat disliked stork, with the only condition being that Junior must fire the company’s sole human employee, Katie Crown’s Tulip, a baby that was never delivered on account of a stork that went insane on her cuteness. Yes, seriously.
The characters in Storks aren’t terribly deep for the most part, and most of them are played purely for accessible, child-friendly gags. Tulip is probably the most well-developed personality in the movie, and even she’s kept purely in the realm of the traditional fish-out-of-water that is just trying to do good for her offbeat world. You can call many of the character ‘twists’ well in advance, and most of the character conflicts that are brought up in Storks are resolved surprisingly easily, and often with a minimum of real logic. This may not be a surprise, since Warner Bros. first came to prominence back in the 1930’s with Looney Tunes cartoons, and Storks does feel true to that style of animation, preferring sharp jokes over sharp storytelling.
That said though, the characters are still fun for the most part. Few of them have lasting bearing on the storyline beyond more jokes and a few quick, disposable obstacles, but in the moment, the personalities will make you laugh more often than they won’t, and that’s what counts. This also manages to shine through in a movie that suffers from being unable to pick a consistent antagonist, rotating as needed between Hunter, a wolf pack that is headed by two wolves that are voiced by Keegan Michael-Key and Jordan Peele (this group is especially hilarious, offering several of the movie’s biggest laughs), the deranged stork that first didn’t deliver Tulip eighteen years ago, and a strange-speaking pigeon that is sort of a lackey of Hunter’s, but maybe has his own ambitions, but not really? The climax does a fairly decent job of tying all of this madness together in a final showdown, but Storks probably would have benefited from being a bit more focused, and just settling on one central antagonist.
Another arc that the movie frequently cuts to is that of a little boy who first writes the letter that first leads to the accidental baby creation that forces Junior and Tulip to go on their big adventure together. It makes sense when you see it. Every so often, the movie will try to take a breath by cutting back to this little boy and his parents, who are over-achieving real estate agents that have started to neglect their son. It’s a fair enough reprieve, though this storyline feels a bit tacked-on, especially when it has literally zero bearing on the main story of Junior and Tulip, after the baby’s initial creation. It’s not a bad storyline though, and has a decent share of heartfelt, if slightly cliched moments.
As much as the character work can occasionally be messy though, it’s tough to really dislike the personalities in Storks. This movie has a clear understanding of how to make enjoyable characters, even if it doesn’t always know how to perfectly stitch them together, and whenever the characters are trying to achieve a certain mood at the very least, they do tend to succeed at whatever sentiment they’re going for. Thus, picking too much at the cast framework of this kids’ movie doesn’t feel like the best use of one’s mental energy. Disney/Pixar, Dreamworks Animation, Illumination Entertainment and Laika all delivered movies with a tighter, more focused cast array this year, but Storks is still easy to watch and have fun with, so it gets the fundamentals of an animated cast right.
The biggest Achilles’ heel in Storks is, disappointingly, its storyline. It’s not a bad storyline per se, but as I’ve already indicated, it’s a pretty messy one. Even by the standards of an animated kids’ movie, the plot in Storks is riddled with holes, and the script seems entirely pushed along on random craziness, rather than relatable struggle. Perhaps that’s fine, if all you want is a silly, light-hearted adventure that still manages enough emotional impact to feel worthwhile, but after 2016 has done so well with so many surprisingly smart and sophisticated animated movies, Storks sticks out as noticeably more immature, and, at worst, noticeably more stupid.
Immaturity in a family flick isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker though, especially not for kids, with a lot of them probably just coming for the goofy characters and colourful animation, even in the case of those more sophisticated 2016 animated movies like Zootopia and Kung Fu Panda 3. Storks rarely makes sense, but the lack of predictability in the adventure still earnestly wears its goofiness on its sleeve, and it’s difficult to complain about a movie that wisely doesn’t pretend to be smarter than it is, simply for the sake of competing with animation studios that are better at the craft at this point. The progression of the adventure is entirely predictable, making the weirdness feel like it’s compensating for a lightweight script, but Storks is easy to enjoy, even if a lot of it is pure cranial junk food.
Despite putting almost the entire movie’s skeleton together by himself, Nicholas Stoller isn’t the sole director of Storks. Instead, Stoller shares directing duties with Doug Sweetland, a former Pixar animator with experience on Toy Story, Toy Story 2, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles. Despite primarily working with the more subdued, classy style of Pixar, Sweetland also seems to work very well with the more manic and exaggerated style of Warner Bros. animation, and it seems to be his touch that gives Storks a great sense of energy and spirit.
Stoller’s story-focused direction however seems to be a bit less consistent. Stoller has proven to be a fantastic director when he’s making live-action comedies explicitly for adults, but now that he’s making an animated movie that’s primarily targeting children and families, he’s a bit more out of his element. Stoller still realizes the movie’s most heartfelt scenes and most ambitious comedic set pieces well, especially with the visual direction of Doug Sweetland giving Storks plenty of clear polish, but there’s a few scenes that fall flat, simply because they don’t connect the story’s many ideas all that well.
Another noticeable gripe about the direction, which some adults may find with Storks, is that Warner Bros. seems to have quite clearly intervened in a few of the more straightforward scenes, and seems to have ordered both Stoller and Sweetland to make the animation and performances more hyperactive and attention-grabbing. WB is clearly trying to replicate their super-charged animation style from The LEGO Movie in Storks, but they go too far with it in some places. A lot of scenes are unreasonably acted and animated with obnoxious, overdone silliness, and while Storks thankfully avoids ever becoming truly annoying in its hyperactivity, there are several noticeable moments where the movie really needs to calm down. Some seniors and parents may find Storks to be excessively exhausting at times because of this, though that certainly would have been worse if it ever came at the expense of the entertainment value, which, fortunately, it doesn’t.
Storks, weirdly enough, is composed by Michael and Jeff Danna, two brothers that have primarily composed mostly more serious-minded movies throughout much of their career, though now seem to be wanting to switch into animated movies, after also doing the soundtrack to last year’s Pixar movie, The Good Dinosaur. The Danna brothers’ soundtrack in Storks, much like the animation and performances, is often very wired and hyperactive, and the two rather noticeably compose the same tongue-in-cheek choir chorus for a blockbuster-skewing joke that repeats itself several times in the movie. It’s a fair enough soundtrack, albeit one that also doesn’t aim very high, and does fill itself with a few disposable, quickly-dated licensed pop songs, which is the hallmark of an animated movie soundtrack that isn’t trying all that hard.
The rest of the audio in Storks is predictably cartoon-ish, and quite heavy on slapstick effects. The sound mixing is careful not to be too loud and imposing, and still has that kid-friendly fluffiness that you would expect in an animated movie like this (in fact, another standout scene is derived from the sound mixing having to be both impactful and quiet, which is incredibly funny to watch), but there’s still a lot of frantic, hyper-energetic noise to keep grasping at childrens’ attention. Like I said, Storks didn’t need to try quite this hard to keep even the attention of children, since most of the movie is plenty entertaining without the obnoxious direction sometimes cropping up, but at least a few of the audio-driven slapstick gags still work, and the movie fortunately avoids descending full-tilt into becoming a spiritual Looney Tunes cartoon, even if that inspiration is still noticeable in such a Warner Bros.-approved animated production.
As much as Warner Bros. still feels like a junior outfit in the modern animation medium, they do clearly possess a lot of very talented animators. For all of its occasional story shortcomings, Storks is nonetheless a very well-animated movie, and is very visually striking, even at its most obnoxious. The energetic animation is certainly very vibrant, and the more ambitious set pieces in the movie are legitimately impressive, even when stacked against the juggernauts at Disney/Pixar and Dreamworks Animation. The storks themselves look particularly great, and some of the visual-based humour in the movie is really realized fantastically. Storks obviously lacks the breathtaking style of Kung Fu Panda 3 or Kubo and the Two Strings, but it’s nonetheless a great example of high-quality film animation, at least standing alongside some B-tier animated movies like The Secret Life of Pets and Ice Age: Collision Course, even if it doesn’t surpass them.
Naturally, I also saw Storks in 3D, which only made the attention-craving animation all the more in-your-face. The 3D is generally pretty good though, if a bit gimmicky in some scenes. There’s some jokes that purely take advantage of throwing 3D effects in audiences’ faces, and these scenes would stick out like a sore thumb in a flat 2D viewing. The 3D is nonetheless well-implemented though, adding a slightly higher sense of scale and fun to a movie that is already visually well-realized. Clearly, Storks is meant to be viewed in 3D, so that’s the cut I recommend most, though if you’d rather stick with the flat 2D option, you can still easily enjoy the appealing animation, even if some of the sight gags might not work as well as they do in the 3D cut.
Storks may not compare to this year’s many animated smash hits on the big screen, but it’s also a better movie than you may imagine, considering its September release period. Its storytelling and direction is sometimes a tad suspect, but never fatally, and the colourful, upbeat entertainment throughout the production will certainly please most audiences. Kids will get a wee bit more out of Storks than adults, especially after said adults may have seen most or all of the standout animated movies that this year has already delivered, but even adults will find that this movie is funny and likable enough to satisfy as a September holdover.
It’s likely that Storks will be quickly forgotten when Warner Animation Group makes their next The LEGO Movie-caliber blockbuster, which will hopefully be February’s The LEGO Batman Movie, but it’s satisfying to see that the studio is capable of more than LEGO-themed animated offerings. The studio still has quite a ways to go before truly entering the competitive arena of big screen animated supremacy, but Storks still proves that WAG’s talents extend beyond those colourful little bricks, and that’s not a bad thing, since WAG has nothing but LEGO-themed movies on the docket until 2018. Heck, even Storks is preceded by an amusing LEGO-themed short film called The Master, as if Warner Bros. is worried that people won’t like Storks nearly as much if they aren’t aware that it’s from the same animation outfit that blessed us with The LEGO Movie in 2014.
I don’t envy Storks on that note, since The LEGO Movie is definitely a very tough act to follow, which is perhaps why WAG didn’t offer any big screen releases until around two-and-a-half years later. Storks definitely aims a lot lower than The LEGO Movie, but it’s fun and competently made, if a bit disposable. It would seem though that The LEGO Movie wasn’t a full-on fluke, since Storks is another entertaining, albeit lesser offering, even if it’s a mere appetizer before WAG’s true trials, which are yet to come over the next two years.
- Fun, enjoyable lead cast, especially Grammer and Crown
- Lots of fast-paced, funny comedic set pieces
- Sharp, well-presented animation and 3D work
- Story is flimsy and full of holes, even for a kids' movie
- Hyperactive direction can be exhausting in some scenes
- Occasional lack of focus in the character arcs