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America: The Motion Picture (2021)

Over the past decade or so Phil Lord and Chris Miller have barely put a foot wrong. Across both animation and live-action, whether as writers, directors or producers they have had a magic touch. They've been involved in some of the best animated films of the last decade, including The LEGO Movie, Spider-Man Into The Spider-Verse and most recently The Mitchells Vs The Machines. The prospect of them teaming up with the studio behind adult animation hit Archer and bringing the R-rated anarchy of their hilarious 21-Jump Street movies into animation sounded pretty exciting. 

The result of this collaboration is America The Motion Picture. Netflix's first adult animated feature. In fact, it was the first Netflix Original animated feature to be announced full stop, although it has been beaten to the punch by a couple of family features. The film is directed by Matt Thompson, making his feature debut following an illustrious career directing countless episodes of Archer, Frisky Dingo and Sealab 2021 and written by Dave Callaham (writer of Marvel's Shang-Chi and the upcoming Into The Spiderverse sequel). Floyd County Productions, the company started by Thompson and his creative partner, Archer creator Adam Reed, produced the animation. The film was released exclusively on Netflix on June 30, 2021.

It all starts from a pretty intriguing concept. The film is a satirical reimagining of the founding of the United States Of America through a Hollywood lens. With no regard for historical accuracy, Callahan's script reshapes the American Revolution into an action movie that treats US history the same way that Hollywood has so often treated the history of other nations.  Even as an outsider with a pretty perfunctory understanding of American history, I know that Abraham Lincoln's assassination didn't happen prior to the declaration of independence and that the king of the time of the war was George III (the mad one) not King James. In terms of historical accuracy, this deliberately makes The Patriot look like a Ken Burns documentary. 

The film recasts George Washington as a lantern-jawed, barrel-chested action hero (voiced by Channing Tatum, who was also a producer on the film), determined to overthrow British rule to avenge his best friend Abe Lincoln (Will Forte) who was slain by Benedict Arnold (a delightfully hammy turn by Andy Samberg). He assembles a ragtag crew including Samuel Adams, Paul Revere, Geronimo and (a gender-swapped) Thomas Edison.

American adult animation frequently falls into the habit of underlining their 'adult' nature in the most juvenile of ways. From Sausage Party to Netflix's own Paradise PD, recent animation history is full of works that over-rely on crude and "edgy" humour, cussing and references to bodily functions. Which isn't to say that is always a bad thing. If it's funny, who cares? South Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut turned its own potty-mouth into an artform (even making it into part of the story). But what constitutes what is or isn't funny is as subjective as it gets and varies from person to person.

So with the major caveat that your mileage may very much vary here, I found The Motion Picture's script to be decidedly light on laughs. Although deliberately angled as a "dumb" Hollywood script riddled with anachronisms, it leans too heavily on the f-bombs and gross-outs. It's doubly disappointing when compared with the whip-smart dialogue that is the bread and butter of Archer and that has made it a firm favourite for more than a decade. 

The movie is also incredibly violent- filled with gushing blood spurts, gory deaths and grizzly maimings that quickly grow tiresome. Throw in a brief sex scene, explicit dialogue and the occasional flash of boobs and you've got the lot for your 'Adult Cartoon Bingo' card.

Also disappointing is a reliance on tired stereotyping. In fairness, it's surely intended to be taken with a hefty dose of irony. Still, it's full of standard American stereotyping of Brits as tea-drinking tyrants with bad teeth and exaggerated "Cheerio guv'nor" or posh accents (always English of course, no Scots, Welsh people or Northern Irish people exist apparently). Which is probably only to be expected, given the subject matter. Not that (white) America is exactly painted in the most glowing manner, either. An implication that Americans are better at holding their beer than Brits might be met with bemusement this side of the pond, too.

A comedy lacking in laughs may appear to be a failure in many regards but in this particular case, there is still something enjoyable here. If you appreciate the truly oddball, there's an irresistible craziness to the whole affair. It gleefully runs roughshod through history, creating a remix of events that bear no resemblance to reality. The Titanic showing up? Why not? A bar in colonial-era America being called Vietnam?  Seems legit. Thomas Eddison is a Chinese woman with Tony Stark tech? Naturally.

Despite the duff dialogue, as a parody, this is much more successful. The film's most effective comedy comes in its riffing on Hollywood tropes- its spoofing of action movies, in particular, is on point. It satirises both general tropes and trends and specific films or franchises. Referencing The Fast and The Furious saga, John Wick or The Transporter is not something you expect to see in a period movie.

Western adult animation also often attracts criticism for its animation quality and design. At times there seems to be an aversion to creating something animated for grown-ups that looks appealing visually. Archer was always something of an outlier here- the aesthetic was more realistic, even if the animation itself was quite limited. Over the course of 11 seasons, the animation has gradually improved and it was more capable of mounting action set-pieces. For their first feature, Floyd County has definitely upped their game.

Visually it doesn't look a million miles away from Adam Reed's spy-comedy, although it looks somewhat glossier and a little more stylised. The animation isn't the smoothest 2D you've ever seen, but it avoids an obviously 'digital' look. The 2D is mixed with some not great looking CG (used primarily for vehicles) that stands out awkwardly from the rest. The blending of 2D and 3D CG is something that few studios seem to be able to get right, despite years of trying.

The 2D animation is showcase most effectively during the frequent action set-pieces. Scenes like Washington taking on scores of Redcoats with Wolverine-esque blades make for some pretty impressive stuff, especially for a comedy film. You can't fault it for ambition and the climactic battle- which is reminiscent at various points of Avengers Endgame, Lord Of The Rings and Star Wars is pretty impressive. 

Combine this with some visual inventiveness and it goes some way to compensate for the flatness of the script. Ideas like the British army driving Star Wars-style AT-ATs modelled on iconic London Double Decker buses, a giant robotic Big Ben* and a bloodthirsty football named Manchester make for some memorable moments.

The very end is pretty great, too. The final scene is genuinely funny and has the type of satirical bite that is lacking elsewhere.

A talented voice-cast also elevates things. Tatum is decent enough but standouts are Samberg, Forte and Jason Mantzoukas (Samuel Adams), Archer regular Judy Greer as a femme-fatale version of Martha Washington and un unrecognisable Simon Pegg as King James.

America: The Motion Picture cannot be said to be fully successful but approached with an open mind, you might find much to enjoy. Adult animated features- 2D animated features at that- are still very much a rarity in the US, so it's worth at least giving it a shot. If you're already a Netflix subscriber the barrier of entry is basically nill, so ignore the reviews and make up your own mind. You might be surprised.



IN A NUTSHELL: What the script lacks in LOLs are made up for by an enjoyably anarchic, anachronistic spirit, visual invention and strong performances.


*Yes,  you and I know that Big Ben is the name of the Bell, and the tower housing it is called Elizabeth Tower but most people know what I mean. Don't be a smart-arse.