America: the Motion Picture review – puerile Netflix animation

A spirit of literal playfulness, in the anarchic smashing-action-figures-into-one-another sense, typifies the cinema of Phil Lord and Chris Miller. The current kings reigning over what remains of the studio comedy got their start on TV as the creators of Clone High, a cartoon that threw assorted figures of global history together to hang out in a modern-day classroom, and an early articulation of the mashup instincts that would follow them through their career.

As one of the two credited writers on Into the Spider-Verse, Lord cherrypicked alternate-dimension Spider-Men (or is it Spiders-Man?) hailing from anime and film noir, and the duo’s revival of the 21 Jump Street property included faux plans for a string of sequels sticking the main characters in fantasy scenarios from “Ninja Academy” to “Scuba Class”. The Lego Movie epitomized their attitude toward intellectual property as another toy to be zoomed around while using the mouth to make airplane noises; Batman, Gandalf and Han Solo all pop up in a purer, more knowing expression of the hyperactive crossing-over that’s since given us Ready Player One, Avengers: Endgame and soon the Space Jam sequel.

Netflix’s irreverent new release America: the Motion Picture, on which Lord and Miller are only listed as producers albeit touted in the trailer, resumes their distinct anything-goes approach to fun-time with an added grownup bent. (And not just because Will Forte voices Abraham Lincoln for the third time in his decades-spanning partnership with the two of them.) A 101-level United States social studies textbook supplies the playground this time around, filling out a super-squad roster with names and faces from the national mythos. But the Lord-Miller sensibility is filtered here through the mediating influence of director Matt Thompson, bringing his experience with adult-geared small-screen animation to bear on features for the first time. Most well-known as the creator of Archer – a show that busied itself by repeatedly sending its characters from one genre to the next, ditching espionage for Indiana Jones-style adventure and sci-fi – he’s adept at orchestrating the bickering between a fractious squad of teammates.

Thompson and Miller/Lord make for a natural pairing, though the same can’t be said of screenwriter Dave Callaham, the clear wrench in the machinery. With far and away the least impressive CV (he’s shared credits on Wonder Woman 1984, Mortal Kombat and Zombieland: Double Tap in recent years), he’s odds-on the one responsible for draining all wit from a premise that needed to be clever, more than merely imaginative. After turncoat and werewolf Benedict Arnold (Andy Samberg) shacks up with the British “fun police” and kills Honest Abe, born leader George Washington (Channing Tatum) must realize his destiny and rally a resistance to gain independence. Roll call: there’s beer-swilling frat boy Sam Adams (Jason Mantzoukas), a female and Asian take on Thomas Edison (Olivia Munn), horse-raised weirdo Paul Revere (Bobby Moynihan), an exasperated Geronimo (Raoul Trujillo), and a thoroughly woke John Henry (Killer Mike), all of them joined in their mission to kick Redcoat ass.

Under Callaham’s inelegant pen, the characters all speak in this overexcited 13-year-old’s vernacular, prone to F-bombs and dick-talk. The real immaturity lies in his attempt to get in on the fictive free-for-all, sin emabargo. His script brings together reference points from the past half-century of pop culture, but his allusions come from the most played-out sectors of nerdery – Star Wars, Robocop, Lord of the Rings, Mad Max, John Wick, to name only a handful. The sophomoric cuss-laden medium into which this stew of fandom has been poured doesn’t recall any of the creators’ other work as much as it does the grab-bag stop-motion program Robot Chicken, or to go even farther back, the early Flash short The Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny. Good guys, bad guys and explosions, indeed – and little more to say for itself than that.

Some of the grace notes take more colorful liberties with the factual record, such as the demonic sentient soccer ball that the corpulent King James (Simon Pegg) keeps as a pet. Even so, it’s all cast in a harder-to-love light due to adolescent nose-thumbing over giddy earnestness, the secret ingredient making Lord and Miller’s imagineering work. Their Lego Movie didn’t dig much deeper into the toy box, it just did so with a childlike enthusiasm that primed the audience by making them feel like kids again. This romp through the remixed American Revolution ages that kid into an acne-specked, body-odorous middle-schooler. Who wants to play make-believe with someone treating “Sic semper my dick, bitches!” as the height of hilarity?

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