“Storks,” the new digital cartoon about a crew of sharp-beaked, flamingo-legged birds who deliver babies (or used to; they now deliver consumer packages — but we’ll get to that in a minute), is a strenuously unfunny animated comedy. These days, that’s a relatively rare bird to encounter, since animated filmmaking right now tends to hit certain baseline slick levels of amiable generic cleverness. In “Storks,” the jokes fall flat, but the pace is relentless, and those two things seem somehow intertwined, as if the filmmakers had convinced themselves that comedy that whips by fast enough won’t go thud. Even if you watch “Storks” and think, four-year-olds will really dig it (and perhaps they will), frenetic and witless is not a great combination. At least, not for anyone over four. The movie will probably enjoy a respectable opening weekend, but after that the situation looks dicier. In the animated marketplace, quality still counts.
The film’s weird absence of ingratiation begins with its premise, which takes off from established fairy-tale folklore in the vein of “Shrek” or any comedy built around, say, the lives of elves in the North Pole. In this case, however, something may stick a bit in your craw. Our stork heroes, led by Junior (voiced by Andy Samberg at his most gee-whiz unironic and benign), once zipped through the skies toting babies in their beaks, the infants encased in what look like miniature space capsules. But that’s all in the past. Now, the birds work for cornerstore.com, delivering random products out of an elongated, train-car-shaped warehouse perched high up in the clouds. They’re couriers of Internet consumerism, and the movie treats the situation they’re in as a fall from grace, like the toys in “Toy Story 3” after they were relegated to a scruffy day-care playroom. We’re supposed to be rooting for a return to the good old days.
But in “Storks,” even the good old days seem a bit…off. The myth of the stork delivering babies is certainly an entrenched part of our culture, and a long time ago it was a convenient wink of a way to explain procreation to young children. Taken literally, though, it presents problems. “Storks” truly does idealize a world in which parents get their little bundle of joy delivered, which makes you wonder things like: Does actual birth not exist in this movie? It’s not every high concept that rewrites the basic rules of the human race.
Things get spun into motion when Nate (Anton Starkman), the semi-ignored young son of two loving but beleaguered parents (Jennifer Aniston and Ty Burrell) who run a real-estate agency out of their kitchen — think “Inside Out: The Sitcom” — decides that he simply has to have a baby brother. Picking up on an old stork pamphlet that’s lying around the house (the one that must have been tied to the stork delivering him), he sends a letter to stork central, requesting an infant, and the letter accidentally gets plopped into the old, shutdown stork Baby Factory, reactivating the machine. How, exactly, does this contraption work? The letter gets split into tiny cells, which then replicate, and replicate some more, and out pops…a real live baby! The first one produced by the factory in nearly 20 years. (But how did couples get their babies in the intervening time? How the heck should I know? Ask Mary Poppins.)
It’s up to Junior, who has just been offered the job of boss/manager of cornerstone.com (his über-overseer is played, with booming voice, by Kelsey Grammer), to deliver the new baby to its rightful parents. Partnering in this quest is Tulip (Katie Crown), Junior’s sole human co-worker, whose defining trait is an explosion of red hair that seems to have been borrowed from the heroine of Pixar’s “Brave” (yes, “Storks” gives you that kind of market-tested feeling), as well as an attitude of super-perky and giddy…uh, attitude that might have been more compelling if she actually had a few good lines to deliver along with the baby.
Tulip has constructed a makeshift flying contraption that she, Junior, and the big-eyed, shiny-pink-haired tot they’re shepherding use to get to their destination. “Storks” is basically a rambling road movie, with a number of rote encounters along the way, like one with a pack of wolves (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele) who possess the rather arbitrary ability to group themselves into different shapes: a drive-able van, an enormous broken heart. “Storks” is a kiddie-entertainment vehicle that runs on the fuel of cliché. There’s a scene in which a character screams “N-o-o-o-o!” in slow motion, as well as glib montages set to “And She Was” and “How You Like Me Now?” The latter sequence features a character named Pigeon Toady who’s a sawed-off semi-villainous beaked bird in what looks like an orange toupee, voiced by Stephen Kramer Glickman, who does a virulent version of Full Valley Girl. He, at least, wakes the movie up.
One of the major disappointments of “Storks” is that it was written and directed by Nicholas Stoller (with Doug Sweetland, the supervising animator on “Cars,” as co-director), a live-action comedy filmmaker who has proved himself to be a brash and creative talent. His debut feature was the 2008 Judd Apatow gem “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” and in the years since that cult classic Stoller has done a snappy job of directing both of Seth Rogen’s “Neighbors” films as well as the heartfelt semi-autobiographical comedy “The Five-Year Engagement.” But where Rogen and company moved into the animated sphere with supreme confidence and verve in the uproarious and outrageous “Sausage Party,” in “Storks” the challenge of working in a new medium seems to have blunted Stoller’s instincts for timing and imagination. The movie’s (meager) appeal comes down to: Animated babies sure are cute! But there’s a difference — or should be — between a kiddie comedy and a kewpie-doll factory.