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Film Reviews Angry Birds film just might resurrect the game’s struggling app maker

Both children and adults alike will delight in the way Rovio’s film adaptation of its Angry Birds app amplifies the joys of the original game.

3 out of 4 stars

Title
Angry Birds
Written by
Jon Vitti
Directed by
Clay Kaytis and Fergal Reilly
Starring
Jason Sudeikis, Josh Gad and Danny McBride
Classification
PG
Country
USA
Language
English

At the height of the Angry Birds craze in 2011, I did sometimes wonder if the fury of our feathered friends was actually justified. There was something bruited about stolen eggs but those didn't appear during game play, and mainly it seemed the obnoxious little green piggies just deserved to be pelted with digitized avifauna. Still, the lack of further explanation was hardly keeping me up nights – nor, I suppose, was it harming the market for millions of downloads, stuffed toys and T-shirts. Now, five years later, Rovio Entertainment charges in with an animated feature offering 90 minutes of back story. Is the Finnish gamemaker years too late to its own party?

Perhaps not. The interesting thing about Angry Birds – at least to those of us who have long since lost interest in gauging the correct angle on the slingshot – is the way the game moved so rapidly across demographics, spreading from the back campus to the schoolyard as fast as a dirty joke. When it was introduced in 2009, the iPhone game was a favourite of young adults and teens as smart as their devices; by 2011, it had expanded to other platforms and was beloved of grade-school boys at that sweet transitional stage where they could happily spend the day destroying the pigs' houses and the night cuddled up with plush-toy versions of the birds. But it is now 2016, and at the advance screening of the Angry Birds movie that I attended last weekend, the most obviously identifiable psychographic in an audience stuffed with young kids was the very little girl in sparkly running shoes.

Ostensibly a puzzle game, Angry Birds is also a shoot 'em up, and if the world is largely inured to the idea that young men and boys spend hours killing things online, the doting parents of little girls are going to demand some hint of a moral precept here – or at least a defensible story of righteous anger and justified revenge.

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And that is precisely what they get in a lighthearted movie that may yet save Rovio – a one-app pony whose business is stagnating and had to lay off a third of its staff last year – if the new project successfully completes the birds' transition from narrow video-game characters into cross-platform pop-culture icons with the capacity for multiple sequels. The film is being released by Sony Pictures, but, unusually, Rovio financed the project itself, maintaining creative control over the characters and whatever profits they make rather than simply licensing the IP.

So these birds carry heavy responsibilities on their fluffy little wings. Nonetheless, they all appear to be blissfully carefree as they waddle about a peaceful island where the very occasional outburst of misbehaviour is met with a stint in anger-management training led by a yogi. There, the smart-ass Red (voiced by Jason Sudeikis) meets two other outsiders, Chuck (Josh Gad) and Bomb (Danny McBride.) These new companions stand by the skeptical Red when a boatload of pigs dazzle the welcoming birds with offers of friendship and entertainment.

For the adults in the audience, there may be an unsettling whiff of colonialism about the arrival of outsiders in ships promising things, but veteran writer Jon Vitti (The Simpsons) and animators-turned-directors Clay Kaytis and Fergal Reilly handle a potentially yucky plot very gently. The pigs steal off in the night with all the birds' eggs, and then, of course, it's okay to get angry.

With the exception of Red, clearly sketched by Sudeikis as a loner and a cynic, the characters are not particularly well defined by either the script or the voice actors. Gad's Chuck is more frenetic than angry, while McBride's Bomb just seems like a gentle giant with a nervous problem involving flatulence.

It matters little, however, as the birds face off against the pigs in an encounter that reproduces the low-tech mechanical aesthetic of the game and, unlike many an overwrought animated climax, is clever, well-paced and satisfying.

Of course, there are jokes here aimed squarely at the adults. Some are simply distractions, such as those piggy versions of the twins from The Shining who appear in one scene. Red, very correctly, slams a door on that image pronto. Others create fairly amusing running gags: The mighty eagle is a superannuated hero whose best days, according to the soundtrack, were back in the 1970s.

But both children and adults will delight in the way the destruction of the pigs' island amplifies the joys of the original game. The effect is an amusing reversal of cultural recognition as the role of the icons expands through reproduction rather than contraction. Or, from a small child's perspective, this Red is even more fun than the bird on Daddy's iPhone.

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And, make no mistake, this is a movie that is supposed to be seen from the perspective of a small child. It exists in a world where no flightless bird can ever be killed by being hurled to the ground from great heights nor can any pig ever be permanently defeated by a case of exploding TNT. Of course, King Pig somehow survives the gleeful demolition – if you are old enough to be reading this, the spoiler simply doesn't matter – and, as the credits roll, promises he is hatching another scheme. If enough little girls in sparkly running shoes love this thing, you can be darn sure he and the birds will be back soon to complete the transformation of a cheeky adult game into a winsome kids' movie franchise, thus ensuring Rovio's resurrection.

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