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America: The Motion Picture

by on July 1, 2021
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In case you’ve ever wanted a radically fictionalized account of American history and a comically romanticized portrayal of our founding fathers — and your school history textbook somehow didn’t do it for you — then boy, do I have a movie for you.

AMERICA: THE MOTION PICTURE.

This heavily fantasized and politically unpredictable romp is born from a wild creative team: firstly, director Matt Thompson, one of the minds behind Archer, Sealab 2021and Frisky Dingo; he’s helped by producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Into the Spider-Verse, 21 Jump Street, The Lego Movie); and the screenplay is penned by Dave Callaham, who has an absolutely wild blockbuster filmography, from Doom to The Expendables films to this fall’s Marvel flick Shang Chi.

Throw in the voices and comedic talent of Channing Tatum, Jason Mantzoukas, Simon Pegg, Olivia Munn, Andy Samberg, Judy Greer, Bobby Moynahan, Will Forte, and Killer Mike, and you’ve got yourself quite the loaded deck for an edgy, animated comedy.

The result? Pretty damn funny at times, but ultimately too hyperactive for its own good. It’s a movie that screams, “Maybe we had a few too many funny people in the same room.”

It’s typical for a film written, directed, or produced by Lord & Miller to be of the “how many laughs can we go for in ten seconds?” variety, and perhaps more often than not, that works out. I love the rapid-fire zaniness of Spider-Verse and The Lego Movie. But in the case of Americait almost feels like the script is competing with itself. A slew of running gags requiring constant callback throughout the film sometimes even undercut newer (and funnier) jokes. The voice cast brings all their talent to the table, but the material is pretty standard bro-humor (with, to its credit, the occasional incisive parody) that, I would think, kinda delivers itself.

The premise of the film is wildly different than I expected. I thought it would be a retelling of America’s actual founding, through the lens of contemporary, raunchy adult comedy. Like Comedy Central’s Drunk History or something. I was right about the comedic lens, but the story here was far more fabricated than I anticipated. That’s not a criticism; this film is literally just a fantasy about the founding of a nation (simply named “America”), featuring superhero-fied versions of randomly assorted significant historical figures, and sci-fi-fantasy battle sequences in the place of landmark historical events.

To briefly summarize: in 1776, George Washington (Channing Tatum) and Abraham Lincoln (Will Forte) are best friends who grew up together and do everything as a pair. When they go to see the Red, White, and Blue Man Group in concert, their friend Benedict Arnold (Andy Samberg) comes to see them in their box. He betrays them, admitting loyalty to the British, turns into a werewolf, rips out Abe’s throat, and leaves. As Abe dies in George’s arms, he asks (through spurts of blood from his neck) that George avenge him by revolting against the British and forming a nation called “America” (which he magically spells out in the air with another squirt of throat-blood).

Thus, George’s motivation for founding America is born. He gathers together a team to lead the assault on the British Empire: Sam Adams (Jason Mantzoukas), a definitely-not-racist frat bro with a killer new beer recipe; Thomas Edison (Olivia Munn), a Chinese woman with electrical Iron Man gauntlets; Paul Revere (Bobby Moynihan), the most skilled horseback rider in the land, who wears medieval knight’s armor and has no idea how to engage with other human beings; and Geronimo (Raoul Max Trujillo), a Native American and skilled tracker who wants to protect his homeland from the British invaders, even if it means allying himself with a different breed of white man who might eventually do the same thing to him anyway.

The gang sets off on their quest to stop Benedict Arnold and his creepy old master, King James (Simon Pegg). Overt Star Wars parallels abound, as do anachronistic references (e.g. George: “We don’t want this to turn out like Vietnam.” Sam: “But we won Vietnam!”) and over-the-top re-imaginings of historical events (e.g. the Gettysburg Address turns out to be a literal street number).

It’s an insanely lightweight, watchable film, gliding by at a brisk hour-38. Unfortunately it feels somewhat like a satire without a point. With the sheer number of “F**k yeah, America!” moments, and the dramatic emphasis put on them, one starts to wonder if the romanticizing of these figures is only kinda ironic. But just when you think it’s getting too American dudebro-ey, the film makes snide comments about discrimination and wealth inequality.

I guess it’s in that vein of “apolitical” media that constantly calls attention to historical and political issues but refuses to lean too hard in one direction or another on them, so it just lightly mocks it all. It’d be too mean to call this the “Joe Rogan Experience” of animated comedies, but there will likely be a significant overlap between that podcast’s listeners and avid lovers of this film.

Admittedly, plenty of the jokes land, and I even found myself laughing out loud on occasion, even while watching it alone (generally, I’m more of a “social laugher”). But I found that it was funnier in concept, or rather that many of the concepts it employed were funnier than the actual jokes as-written. Making Thomas Edison a Chinese woman with Stark tech who gets persecuted as a witch for her beliefs in science is pretty funny. Treating Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox as Kaiju and having them fight a Big Ben mech is funny. But the word-for-word humor ranges from “okay, that’s pretty damn clever” to “rejected College Humor sketch.” I guess that’s just a potential side effect of the swing-for-the-fences approach to comedy.

America: The Motion Picture is a quick, easy-breezy gonzo comedy that is bound to sit far better with some than with others. I personally admired its wacky, mostly-2D art style and its brazen retooling of American history into a ludicrous fantasy epic, but was somewhat bored by its storytelling and punchlines, and even occasionally turned off by its toothless satire and the undertones of “See? We’re not actually being nationalistic bigots! It’s all a joke!” It’s an example of the phenomenon South Park is often accused of, though I think the master of riding that line is clear between these two.

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