Going by the trailers alone, Storks might look like a bit of an anachronism in 2016, taking its comedic kick start from the folkloric image of the white stork delivering babies to expectant parents that was popularised by Hans Christian Anderson and latterly in Disney’s Dumbo. Happily, writer and co-director Nicholas Stoller has thought this through more than we have.
In Warner Animation Group’s second feature, storks delivered infants from their baby factory on Stork Mountain in the past, but a pioneering boss has changed all of that, “because there are lots of other ways to get a baby.” Now the mountain is crowned with a great big warehouse from which Amazon-a-like online retailer Cornerstore.com dispatches electrical goods and other doo-dads so that storks don’t have to deal with the hassle of carrying newborns any more.
One weekend, top flier Junior (voiced by Andy Samberg) is all set to take over from boss bird Hunter (Kelsey Grammer) on Monday morning, provided he can just get rid of Tulip (Katie Crown), a human girl who was never delivered as an infant and has grown into a boundlessly enthusiastic 18 year old inventor. His well-meaning efforts to let her down gently inadvertently causes Tulip to reactivate the baby factory, creating the first newborn on Stork Mountain in decades. Now saddled with a baby who has “ninja skills”, Junior and Tulip have to overcome broken wings, wolves and their own colleagues to deliver the package to its family, without getting too attached in the process.
The movie market is crowded with superb animation studios like Disney, Pixar, Laika, Aardman and (on their good days) DreamWorks, but Warner/WAG is carving out a comfy little niche for themselves with these first two films. Most of their slate looks to be be made up of LEGO movies, including next year’s Batman and Ninjago spin-offs, but Storks lives up to 2014’s The LEGO Movie as a fast, funny and hyperactive comedy.
Up until now, Stoller’s other written and directed comedies have been grown-up/raunchy affairs like the Bad Neighbours movies, but he was also a co-writer on both The Muppets and Muppets Most Wanted, so he’s got very good form for writing family films in our book. Some filmmakers talk about making these sorts of films for their kids, but there’s no doubt that Stoller has made this one for parents too.
Free from the expectations of an Apatovian ‘From the guy who brought you Forgetting Sarah Marshall‘ tag, he’s turned in a weird and wonderful film that’s well thought out and surprisingly heartfelt beneath the 20,000 RPM pacing of the thing. In explaining why the storks don’t necessarily need to do their traditional duties, it plays with the issue of where babies really come from in a way that will go over younger viewers’ heads, but then also explores what happens with couples who might need the help of the storks, in a subtle and sensitive way.
This might have been explored in more depth in the sub-plot and it’s easy to imagine a Pixar version of the same story that would go down that road, but Storks keeps it simple by centring a child (Anton Starkman) who is desperate to be a big brother so that he’ll be less lonely when his workaholic parents (Ty Burrell and Jennifer Aniston) leave him to his own devices.
Like The LEGO Movie, it’s not the most original film in the world – throughout the film, we’re variously reminded of either Monsters Inc, Arthur Christmas or both at the same time. Unlike The LEGO Movie, it’s not as self-referential about its derivation, because we’re all having far too much fun to go into it.
What sets it apart is its characters, who are well designed and well cast. Particular highlights include Grammer’s Hunter, who seems to have been influenced by the managerial style of Chris Morris in the first series of The I.T. Crowd, a bizarre pigeon toady (Stephen Kramer Glickman) whose valley accented weirdness plagues our heroes, and a besotted pack of wolves (primarily voiced by comedy duo Key and Peele) who have the endlessly hilarious power to transform into vehicles and structures in their pursuit of “the tiny thing” in Junior and Tulip’s care.
The wolves typify what we really like about this one. Like Lord and Miller, who are credited as producers, Stoller and co-director Doug Sweetland use the medium to do at least one setpiece or sight gag that wouldn’t be possible in live action, every five minutes. That said, one of the funniest setpieces in the film hinges on an action scene that has to take place in absolute silence because none of the combatants wants to wake the baby. Coupled with the relentless pace of the thing, the hilarity of it makes this the fastest 90 minutes you’ll spend in the cinema all year.
For kids, Storks is a wildly imaginative cartoon caper, but for adults who were let down a little by Sausage Party, it might also be what you were actually looking for from an animated feature by a Judd Apatow alum. You barely notice how derivative the story is because it’s so imaginative in all other regards, and while it doesn’t have the thematic heft of some of the year’s very best animations, a comedy as funny as this one is not to be ignored.