I’ll tell you what, the only thing a critic enjoys more than a good movie is a good movie that’s a surprise. The Angry Birds Movie (2016) was a miserable affair reverse-engineered to explain why the birds in the popular smartphone game were slingshotting one another at pigs — something nobody needed to know and that wouldn’t (and didn’t) make sense anyway. It was crass, useless garbage. Well, knock me down with a feather, but The Angry Birds Movie 2 is delightful, finding fun new avenues to explore in the world half-assedly created by the original, with a down-and-dirty, happily undignified approach to comedy. And all it took was getting a new director and new writers!
In the sequel, the bird named Red (Jason Sudeikis), once an outcast because he’s a jerk, is now a hero because he saved Bird Island last time. That there is a joke about him being beloved only because he proved useful (like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer) is our first indication that the sequel has a different attitude. Red is still full of himself, even more so now that he’s a hero who spends his days defending Bird Island in the “prank war” against Pig Island. When the leader of the pigs, Leonard (Bill Hader), proposes a truce so that pigs and birds can fight a common enemy — the inexplicably frozen Eagle Island, run by a madwoman (madeagle) named Zeta (Leslie Jones) — Red is onboard, but only so he can prove his own heroism some more. This masks his real concern, which is a fear of being left out.
And so a team is dispatched to Eagle Island to stop Zeta and deactivate her weaponized volcano. The team includes Red; his super-fast friend Chuck (Josh Gad); his potentially explosive friend Bomb (Danny McBride); Leonard the pig; Leonard’s headphone-wearing daughter, Courtney (Awkwafina); Garry the I.T. pig (Sterling K. Brown); and Chuck’s brainiac sister, Silver (Rachel Bloom), an engineering student who annoys Red. Mighty Eagle (Peter Dinklage), the washed-up predator who lives on Bird Island, is consulted for his insider knowledge of the eagles, but is cagey about his connection to these particular eagles.
The high point of the Eagle Island mission is the effort by Chuck, Bomb, Leonard, Courtney, and Garry to infiltrate the top-secret headquarters by means of an eagle costume that the five of them share. The resulting slapstick (each pig or bird is operating a different part of the Trojan Eagle’s body) is some of the best animated tomfoolery I’ve seen in a while, culminating in a hysterical sequence at a row of urinals in a men’s (eagles’) room. (Real birds have cloacae, but the birds in these movies have penises.)
This gets at the core of why the sequel works better than the original. Instead of trying to be a traditionally loony ‘toon focused on an unlikable protagonist, the sequel leans into Red’s shallowness and makes him an object of derision and pity, almost like a Seinfeld character. (The way an unrelated B-story involving three young birds caring for three not-yet-hatched eggs eventually ties in with the main narrative also shows Seinfeld-ian elegance.) “Pathetic” is a lot more likable than “arrogant,” and seeing a depressed Red slumped on his living room floor cramming popcorn into his beak while pouring melted butter down his gullet goes a long way toward, well, humanizing him.
The other characters, too, while not loathsome, are given free rein to be shallow, absurd, and pop-culture-savvy in ways that Pixar characters seldom are. Director Thurop Van Orman (from TV’s Adventure Time and The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack) and screenwriters Peter Ackerman (Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs), Eyal Podell, and Jonathon E. Stewart (Smallfoot) make liberal use of instantly recognizable pop songs to make comedic points (there’s a ’90s flashback with eagles dressed in contemporary fashions while Paula Cole’s Dawson’s Creek song plays), and a few of the setup-punchline combos have the zip of classic Simpsons. It seems the best way to make a movie out of a smartphone game is to ignore almost everything about the game and just have fun with the characters. Who knew?