For those stalwart souls who have resisted one of the great time-wasters of the iPhone era, “Angry Birds” is a puzzle game in which the player uses to a virtual slingshot to launch a barrage of cartoon birds as missiles. Their target: ugly-cute green pigs who have stolen their eggs.
Released in 2010, the app became a pop-culture phenomenon, spawning toys, T-shirts, backpacks and theme-park attractions. All of this made ”The Angry Birds Movie” inevitable. Yet it is no small task turning cutesy game icons — which we’re used to seeing at the millimeter scale — into larger-than-life characters with quirks, backstories and narrative arcs that go beyond their catapult trajectories.
Screenwriter Jon Vitti and first-time directors Fergal Reilly and Clay Kaytis certainly give it a try, but their bag of tricks is mostly recycled and their sense of humor is aimed squarely at 12-year-old boys.
The opening action sequence is straight out of the ”Ice Age” movies, except instead of a saber-toothed squirrel with an acorn, it’s Red — a squat, flightless bird with Groucho Marx eyebrows and the voice of Jason Sudeikis — racing to deliver a ”hatch day” present. After the client takes issue with his tardiness, Red loses his temper and winds up in anger-management class, where he meets Chuck (Josh Gad), a yellow bird with Flash speed, and Bomb (Danny McBride), who literally blows up when he gets mad.
As the archetypal lonely outsider, Red is the only bird on the island who is suspicious when a ship arrives with a crew of roly-poly piggies led by Leonard (Bill Hader). As for the rest of the villagers, anyone who isn’t wowed by the newcomers’ high-tech gadgets (especially the all-important slingshot) is won over by their stage show, a sort of Country Thunder From Down Under with hip-swiveling piggies wearing, shall we say, ham-less chaps.
That’s the level of comedy throughout the film, which is packed with bad puns (”Pluck my life”) and other mildly risque material designed to make older kids giggle while sailing over the heads of their younger siblings. Some of the sight gags are based on bird biology, as when a mommy bird packs lunch for her kids by regurgitating it, although others ignore the facts of avian life (such as: birds don’t pee).
In a sure sign of a premise running thin, there are numerous, utterly irrelevant pop-culture references, including a two-second clip parodying ”The Shining” (”Red rum!”).
Eventually, of course, the pigs’ nefarious purpose (see first paragraph above) is revealed, and it’s up to Red to save the day by turning himself and his neighbors into missiles raining feathery terror down on the pigs’ city. If you’re a fan of Angry Birds, it’s definitely fun to see the game mechanics blown up to cinematic scale. So much so, in fact, that it makes the buildup — the budding friendships and the heart-tugging flashbacks — seem all the more obligatory, even superfluous.
Two years ago, ”The Lego Movie” proved once and for all that just because a film is a transparent exercise in corporate brand expansion doesn’t mean it can’t have heart. ”The Angry Birds Movie” is a reminder of just how hard it remains to manufacture sincerity.
Columbia Pictures presents a film directed by Fergal Reilly and Clay Kaytis and written by John Vitti. Running time: 97 minutes. Rated PG (for rude humor and action). Opens Friday at local theaters.