Due to recent personal developments that need not be explained here at length (suffice to say that she’s damnably cute and just started smiling), I can’t bring myself to be entirely objective about “Storks.” That’s only fitting, because one of the running jokes in this lively computer-animated fantasy is that the mere sight of an infant child — particularly one with big blue eyes and bright magenta hair — has the power to strip predators of their baser instincts, and perhaps even divest critics of their sharpest knives.
That’s a reasonable enough assumption, even if “Storks” initially gives you plenty of cause for skepticism. There’s no denying the movie is a high-concept, candy-colored placeholder for Warner Bros.’ animation wing, padding out its slate until the release of next year’s back-to-back installments of “The Lego Movie” franchise. (Arrive a few minutes late for “Storks” and you might miss the Lego-themed short, and I mean that less as a warning than as a recommendation.)
You might take issue too with a children’s film that imagines a stork-run baby delivery service in much the same way that Christmas movies visualize Santa’s workshop. Surely there’s no good reason to excavate this silly, sexually regressive fantasy, other than to further infantilize young minds that aren’t quite ready to face the birds or the bees. “Storks” offers no real defense against this argument. But like any pleasant surprise, this funny, frenetic, cheerfully nonsensical movie makes its own rules and gives you a few things that you weren’t, well, expecting.
There is a scene at the midpoint in which two fatigued characters try to rock a baby to sleep, only to start bickering over their own sleep deprivation, that might play for some parents in the audience like purest documentary realism. Considering one of the characters is a talking bird named Junior and the two are huddled on a rocky island after having crash-landed their homemade airplane, this is no small accomplishment.
Which is not to imply that the appeal of “Storks” is limited to viewers with children, or that the movie is some smug, obnoxious brief on the incomparable glories of child rearing. But as scripted by Nicholas Stoller (who co-directed with the Pixar veteran Doug Sweetland), it does offer an insistent and heartfelt defense of family, a term that the filmmakers define in a pleasingly elastic, color- and species-blind fashion. And it takes a persuasive, principled stand against some of the more intrusive conveniences of modern life and the seemingly insurmountable technological barriers they have erected between parents and their children.
Those barriers have clearly impacted operations at Cornerstore.com, a stork-run courier service that operates out of an enormous warehouse in the clouds (picture an airborne Amazon). Once upon a time, these long-billed birds upheld their culturally mandated calling to deliver human babies to their parents. In recent years, however, they have abandoned this task in favor of delivering computers, cellphones and other inanimate products to their worldwide customer base. Babies, with their giggly antics and unpredictable urine streams, don’t make for the most secure packages, and matters of human reproduction are probably best left in human hands.
Perched near the top of the Cornerstore hierarchy is Junior (voiced by Andy Samberg), an affable go-getter who finds himself in charge of the company’s sole human employee, Tulip (Katie Crown), a product of the baby factory who was never properly delivered to her parents 18 years earlier, due to an unfortunate workplace mishap. Tulip, whose curly red hair underscores her resemblance to Little Orphan Annie, is all too eager to please her avian adopters. But in her clumsiness, she reawakens the company’s long-dormant baby machinery and winds up producing an adorable infant girl.
Hoping to hide this transgression from Cornerstore’s sinister, black-suited CEO (Kelsey Grammer) and an obnoxiously nosy stool pigeon (Stephen Kramer Glickman, whose performance seems to invent a whole new range of vowel sounds), Tulip and Junior set out on a long journey to a distant suburb, where they plan to deliver the child to her clueless parents (Ty Burrell and Jennifer Aniston) and her older brother (Anton Starkman), who ordered the baby in the first place.
And so begins a weird, disjointed adventure with some expertly tooled diversions along the way, none more consistently amusing than a resourceful wolf pack whose leaders are voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, putting a nice lupine spin on their tried-and-true banter.
The decision to pair off the principal voice actors in this fashion — Samberg and Crown, Burrell and Aniston, Key and Peele — lends a welcome coherence and rhythm to a movie that, with its madcap energy and joke-per-second delivery, might otherwise have felt as strenuously unfunny as this summer’s “The Secret Life of Pets.”
For all its zany non sequiturs, “Storks” boasts a sharper comic sensibility — and a much more rigorously imagined talking-animal kingdom — than that Illumination Entertainment-produced hit. You can sense the creative input of two credited executive producers, Christopher Miller and Phil Lord, whose earlier animated work (“The Lego Movie,” “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs”) has shown a particular flair for controlled chaos.
But most of the credit must go to Stoller, enjoying a family-friendly respite from the Judd Apatow-produced live-action comedies he’s written and/or directed (“Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” “Get Him to the Greek,” the “Neighbors” movies), with their sweetly vulgar antics and games of genital peek-a-boo.
Unlike his Apatovian fraternity brother, Seth Rogen, who recently made his own naughty foray into feature-length animation with “Sausage Party,” Stoller stays well within the confines of a PG rating, as “Storks” slyly acknowledges, and sidesteps the logistical and biological riddles at the heart of its lunatic premise. Kids who are just starting to wonder “Where do babies come from?” are likely to emerge from the movie feeling as though one set of burning questions has been replaced by another.
But then they might also find themselves distracted from those questions by the story’s surprisingly deep pockets of emotion. Its admonition to the viewer — find a family to love, and love the family you’ve got — is as unoriginal as it is sincerely felt. But the movie goes further still, satirizing a collective obsession with modern gadgetry and disruptive technology that is steadily eroding businesses and families the world over, undermining the relationships, traditional pastimes and artisanal values that make life worth living, and creating, in the first place.
“Storks” offers no solutions. As a computer-generated mass entertainment and a lucrative merchandising opportunity, it is undoubtedly part of the very problem it seeks to diagnose. But in between all the noisy set-pieces, and up until the big-bang action climax, it’s refreshing to see a movie whose niftiest ideas are not just clumsily tossed off, but handled with care.
MPAA rating: PG, for mild action and some thematic elements
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Playing: In general release
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