‘Flipping the Script’ on ‘Storks’

Welcome to “Flipping the Script,” a monthly column where I reconsider recent films that have been panned, frowned upon, or simply underappreciated. I believe that movies should speak to us on a deep, personal level, and this column will consist of films that have done that for me despite widespread derision or apathy. Join me on my noble quest for cinematic redemption!

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As the box office becomes saturated with more and more computer generated features, it’s not surprising that some would fall under the radar. Last year’s crop was particularly eye-popping, with heavyweights like Finding Dory, Moana, and Zootopia garnering most of the attention and accolades. But I’m honestly surprised that Storks, starring bankable funnymen like Andy Samberg, Ty Burrell, and the unstoppable duo of Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, was largely dismissed by critics.

Storks takes one of the oldest comedic prompts in the book – where do babies come from? – and quite literally flies with it. The resulting film is a brightly animated, pointedly self-aware comedy about friendship, family, and the undeniable cuteness of babies. CUTE BABIES! Babies that are specifically computer-engineered to look and act even more impossibly adorable than actual human babies. Really, what more could you want in a movie, you soulless automaton?

Fortunately, Storks does have a lot more to offer as well. Written by Nicholas Stoller (director of Neighbors and Forgetting Sarah Marshall) and co-directed by Stoller and Doug Sweetland, Storks is truly a laugh-out-loud kind of film, featuring quippy humor in the style of recent television hits Brooklyn 99 (which also stars Samberg) or The Good Place (which you should all be watching). Each line of dialogue is delivered with sugar-high intensity or impeccably crafted slowness, making it feel like a parade of personal jokes with the audience. Storks is also a recognizable descendant of the hilarious, hallucinogenic absurdity of The Lego Movie, and indeed, directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller serve as executive producers of this film.

Like How to Train Your Dragon, which I lauded in last month’s column, Storks begins with an opening narration that sets up the film’s world order: “For as long as anyone can remember, storks delivered babies,” Samberg’s character, Junior, explains. Cue the montage of cherubic infants totally whaling on a stoic platoon of flying storks, which is abruptly cut short when Junior finishes: “Thank goodness we don’t do that anymore!” These days, storks run the Amazon-esque Cornerstore.com, delivering gadgets and gizmos instead of babies. The new factory is presented as a paragon of efficiency, and as one YouTuber explains in a fascinating video about the evolution of animation, the CGI art form is uniquely positioned to craft stories based on the theme of the well-oiled machine of conformity versus the individualism of the quirky outsider – which necessitates, of course, the presence of said quirky outsider.

In Storks, this role is filled by Orphan Tulip – or just Tulip, since, as she explains with a nervous laugh, “‘Orphan’ hurts my heart!” Tulip, voiced by effervescent newcomer Katie Crown, is the one human amid the group of storks (and various other fowl). Relentlessly optimistic and hyperactively happy, she tries to be helpful but always ends up getting in the way instead – say, by accidentally blowing up half of the Cornerstore.com factory. Which is the reason Junior has been tasked with “liberating” Tulip – that is, firing her – and sending her off to wreak havoc on the human world instead.

The movie is undoubtedly strengthened by its stellar voice cast. As Junior, a high-performing Cornerstore.com employee chomping at the bit for a big promotion from his boss, Hunter (Kelsey Grammer), Samberg plays his usual fake-cool-guy character, immediately endearing himself to the audience. Crown plays Tulip with a hefty dose of ironic upspeak, making her seem simultaneously silly and soulful. The interplay between the two of them is priceless; they take every joke too far, and somehow that makes each joke even funnier.

The film’s other voice actors bring their A-games as well. Anton Starkman is Nate Gardner, the (human) son of inattentive parents Sarah and Henry (perfectly cast as Jennifer Aniston and Ty Burrell), who comes across as a sort of Andy Samberg Mini-Me, guilting his parents into helping him with a project with deadpan lines like, “You blink and I’ll be in college” and “You’ll only be my idol for like two more years.” Nate longs for a baby brother and decides to write to the storks to make his dream come true. When Tulip receives his letter and enthusiastically places it in the seemingly defunct baby creation machine, she and Junior are compelled to deliver the pink-haired bundle of joy safely to Nate’s family… before the boss finds out about their misstep.

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Naturally, Tulip and Junior encounter a host of roadblocks along the way. Pigeon Toady (Stephen Kramer Glickman), a colleague of Junior’s who is essentially a bird-version of the surfer bro characters from SNL’s classic sketch “The Californians,” is hot on their trail. And after they crash in the wilderness with the baby, Junior and Tulip are waylaid by a menacing pack of wolves. The wolves proclaim that they are going to tear the “tiny thing” apart, until they are beset by her cuteness and become instantly smitten. It is a truth universally acknowledged that Key & Peele cameos make everything infinitely better, and their performances as the Alpha and Beta wolves are an absolute highlight of an already highlight-filled film.

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Storks offers a touching tale about becoming a family, but it is the pitch-perfect humor that truly carries the film. Scenes with extended gags reveal the incredible depth and breadth of improv talent on the cast, and the recurring theme of “haggard parenting” is hilariously sketched out by Tulip and Junior throughout the film. The humor in Storks is elevated by its self-awareness, hyperbole, and both confirmation of and subversion of gender politics. For example, when Tulip first hears the baby cry, her “maternal instinct” kicks in – but this concept is explored through a farcical montage that undermines the concept of a mother as being merely passive and proper. In a delightful twist, feminism is taken as a given and therefore used to propel other jokes – such as Alpha and Beta declaring their evil plan to kidnap the baby: “First, we’re gonna take tiny thing and raise her to be a strong, independent woman. And second, WE’RE GONNA EAT YOU.”

In other words, Storks presents a uniquely postmodern form of self-deprecating comedy that hits the spot in this culturally aware day and age. Even the emotional elements of the film are delivered with humor, and this allows the story to cruise along without becoming too cheesy or maudlin. Of course, there are heartwarming moments to behold as well, and the film’s ending montage is a beautiful ode to different types of family structures. After all, there are few things more earth-shatteringly adorable than CGI-animated babies.

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Allyson can be found hiding from adult responsibilities on Twitter at @TheFakeFangirl and overanalyzing time travel stories at The Fake Fangirl.

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