Is it possible to create a “political satire” with no discernible political point of view? Netflix’s new animated feature, America: The Motion Picture, is just dumb enough, and just loud enough, to try to find out.
The first film directed by Matt Thompson—whose career in animation stretches back through Archer, Frisky Dingo, and Sealab 2021, all funnier than this—has a premise that actually borders on smart: It’s 1776, on the eve of Revolution, but in a version of soon-to-be-America cobbled together from a drunk college student’s muddled memories of elementary school history. Thus, we have a hard-partying George Washington (Channing Tatum) and Abraham Lincoln (Will Forte, whose reprisal of his old Clone High role is one of the only clear signs of the film’s Lord/Miller pedigree) catching a show together at Ford’s Theatre. And Thomas Edison (here a Chinese woman, played by Olivia Munn), Geronimo (Raoul Max Trujillo), and the fictional John Henry (Killer Mike) teaming up to fight the redcoats. And, in one of the film’s more relatively clever touches, a reimagining of Vietnam as a dive bar where they get bogged down in a particularly pointless and demoralizing quagmire of a brawl.
The hodgepodge nature of its setting allows America to deploy the occasional delightful sign gag (we’d be lying if we said the “John Wilkes Merch Booth” didn’t extract a laugh), which, unfortunately, have to share air with the million or so other gags being constantly hurled at the screen. Generic dumb guy jokes, ironic racism jokes, meta jokes about the film’s own production values, and more crowd America’s comedy atmosphere, in an animated imitation of a Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker movie—and not one of their better ones. Ironically, political comedy, which one might assume would take precedence in a comedic re-telling of America’s founding, is the only variety of the genre that feels underrepresented: Aside from a running gag about the POC members of the “team” being deservedly skeptical that their rich white partners will hold up their ends of various bargains, the satire here rarely goes far beyond “Americans love beer and explosions, while British people all have bad teeth.”
Partly, that urge toward the generic can probably be attributed to the film’s desire to also function as a serviceable superhero action flick, albeit one where Paul Revere (Bobby Moynihan) is capable of drift-racing a horse, while Edison flies across the battlefield electrocuting elephants with her science-powered lightning gloves. (Again, there are clever touches; they’re just buried in the pile.) In its best moments, Thompson’s film can (briefly) present and reconcile the clashing, extremely American ideas of “This is stupid” and “This is awesome”—at least, until the next joke about how nobody knows what a car is in 1776.
At least it looks good: The animation isn’t as lush as what you’d find in a movie designed to play first and foremost on the big screen, but the visuals are still the one aspect of the film that live up to America’s spirit of promised excess. And there’s an undeniable charm to watching Tatum’s Washington tear British soldiers apart with arm-mounted chainsaws, or seeing the villainous Benedict Arnold (Andy Samberg) transform, for no readily apparent reason, into a slavering, murderous werewolf. Gory, horny, and at least visually bold, America is almost always fun to gawk at, even when the writing is letting it down.
But that writing is a real problem. The script has a worse hit-to-miss ratio than the track records of pretty much every single person involved here would lead you to expect. From dated references—Judy Greer, largely wasted as the future Martha Washington, has an “adult kickball league” joke that wouldn’t have been out of place to the first season of Portlandia—to far too many gags that take their own laziness as a workable punchline, America simply isn’t very funny. The film’s trailer, and its imagery, promised something totally bonkers. What we’re actually offered is closer to a lukewarm cup of comedy tea.