Among its many annoyances, the streaming revolution has at least expanded accessibility to work in formats that wouldn’t have been commercially viable a decade ago. Plenty of “limited series” are just very long movies chopped into episodes; at the other end of the spectrum are longform music video/artfilm hybrids and featurettes, like Almodóvar’s The Human Voice, that fit neither a theatrical nor broadcast-TV business model.
Then there’s Netflix’s America: The Motion Picture, which has the running time of a conventional feature, but feels less like an actual movie than most hour-and-a-half narratives you’re ever likely to see. A throw-everything-against-the-wall collection of silly jokes that reimagines American history as a bro-tastic action flick, Matt Thompson’s animated film makes Drunk History look like a Ken Burns production. Though it’ll likely leave some customers satisfied in its current form, it would be much easier to take as a series of very short, instantly forgettable episodes that pop up in one’s stream unpredictably. It might’ve been perfectly at home at the late, unlamented Quibi.
America: The Motion Picture
The Bottom Line
The pic stars such comedic heavy-hitters as Channing Tatum, Judy Greer and Andy Samberg. Its producers include Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who might reasonably feel that, after turning LEGO blocks into a hit franchise, there’s no idea so dumb they can’t make it fun. But this is one hell of a dumb idea.
Tatum gives voice to George Washington, who in the days before the Revolution is best friends with Abraham Lincoln (Will Forte). Thus does screenwriter Dave Callaham establish part of the movie’s storytelling conceit, in which all people found in history books are assumed to have lived at the same time, and probably to have played a lot of beer pong together. The buds are out at Ford’s Theatre one night, seeing the Red White Blue Man Group, when Abe is brutally murdered by Benedict Cosby Arnold, who turns out to be not only a traitor but a werewolf. As a geyser of blood spurts from his neck, Lincoln makes Washington promise to free the colonies.
Lincoln’s funeral is attended by JFK and both Presidents Roosevelt, but the most amusing thing about it is a throwaway gag whose pure goofiness stands out among visual jokes that too often rely on movie references. While a couple of these are sly non-sequiturs (why do George’s dreams of his dead pal take place in the Reservoir Dogs warehouse?), many beat viewers over the head, and they keep coming long after they’ve stopped being surprises.
George, whom animators have given the proportions and hair of He-Man, sets out to assemble a team of heroes to thwart Arnold and the English king he serves. (That’d be King James, not George, presented here like Emperor Palpatine — Death Star-like superweapon and all.) Chief among them is Samuel Adams (Jason Mantzoukas), a beer-loving frat boy who thinks the Brits are persecuting brewers so they can keep selling the colonists tea. The fellas go find Paul Revere (Bobby Moynihan), a champion racer who may have an unhealthy relationship with horses, and Thomas Edison (Olivia Munn) — who, contrary to their expectations of a great inventor, is a young Chinese woman. Along with a couple other random historical figures, they go adventuring.
Thompson is a longtime exec-producer of Archer, and America tries to coin some of the recurring dialogue motifs that work so well there. The best is George’s habit, any time he says something that sounds familiar, of solemnly identifying the quotation as “John 3:16.” Archer can be as anything-goes as this is, but when it works, it represents a coherent comic vision that’s absent here. Here, for instance, you never get the feeling anyone behind the scenes knows why the characters would own cassette decks but not know what a car is.
Naturally, the film takes some shots at the sins entwined with America’s birth and foreshadows some crimes to come. Expect wordplay around the words “racist” and “blacksmith,” but nothing really provocative. There’s a limit to how much trenchant satire you can work into a story built on an F-student’s sense of historical context.