Given the seemingly arbitrary nature of the curriculum within America’s current school systems on the subject of our own history, it’s not entirely implausible to believe that America: The Motion Picture will be taken as more fact than fiction. Netflix’s first animated film is a veritable who’s who of this country’s most notable figures and founding fathers, all mashed together with no discernable logic or reason behind most of it.
Premise: A chainsaw-wielding George Washington teams with beer-loving bro Sam Adams to take down the Brits in a tongue-in-cheek riff on the American Revolution.
Given the seemingly arbitrary nature of the curriculum within America’s current school systems on the subject of our own history, it’s not entirely implausible to believe that America: The Motion Picture will be taken as more fact than fiction. Netflix’s first animated film is a veritable who’s who of this country’s most notable figures and founding fathers, all mashed together with no discernable logic or reason behind most of it. For example: one of the film’s opening scenes includes George Washington (voiced by Channing Tatum) and Abraham Lincoln (Will Forte) seeing the “Red White and Blue Man Group” at Ford’s theatre (which is emblazoned with the Ford Motor Company logo on the entrance, of course).
A similar synergy has also formed behind the camera, an assemblage of some of the best and smartest comedy and satire talents working today, including Phil Lord and Christopher Miller as producers, Dave Callaham as screenwriter, and first-time director Matt Thompson (who, along with producer Adam Reed, are responsible for 21st-century hit comedies like Archer and Sealab 2021).
And yet, as silly and laugh-out-loud funny as America frequently proves itself to be, there’s an element missing that keeps it from reaching its full potential. The film invites comparisons to 2004’s Team America: World Police (similarly written and directed by kings of satire Trey Parker and Matt Stone) in the way it offers a revisionist take on America and our view of ourselves. But while Team America dealt with our very rocky contemporary standing in the world, America: The Motion Picture tells the story of our nation’s founding and the Revolutionary War. After the death of Lincoln at the hands of Benedict Arnold (Andy Samberg), who is also a werewolf, Washington realizes he’s had enough of the British “fun police” and sets out for revenge. Since all the other founding fathers – like Benjamin Franklin and John Hancock – were similarly slain, Washington must put together a team including Sam Adams (Jason Mantzoukas), Paul Revere (Bobby Moynihan), Thomas Edison (Olivia Munn – yes, Edison is a woman in this version. Deal with it, snowflakes!), and Geronimo (Raoul Trujillo). America envisions a world where the colonies are essentially separate frat houses, and various events of notoriety have been given their own absurdist spin. The scene that reimagines the Boston Tea Party is a personal favorite. The film is jam packed full of Lord and Miller’s trademark humor: non-sequiturs, forays into absurdity, background gags aplenty, and general silliness, but the heart that’s usually at the center of their projects has been replaced by bro-centric exploits and shock value.
Beyond that, the film lacks the visual splendor that Lord and Miller are known for in films like The Lego Movie and Into the Spider-Verse and even this year’s Mitchells vs. the Machines. Notably absent from the production company credits is Sony Pictures Animation, Lord and Miller’s go-to animation house, which could help explain the film’s rather ordinary look. While the film doesn’t look bad per se, and the story wouldn’t necessarily be improved by an expansive aesthetic, the look of the animation doesn’t grab your attention as much as it could. Nevertheless, the voice performances are great all around and the cast gels nicely with each other. The casting of Moynihan as a horse-loving man-child with barely any familiarity with the human race, and the “evolution” of his character by the end of the film, is a particular highlight.
Viewers hoping for a high-minded takedown of American exceptionalism will probably be left disappointed, but that’s ok. 2021 is already shaping up to be a banner year for “turn your brain off” movies so far – between Godzilla vs. Kong, Mortal Kombat, Army of the Dead, and F9, to name a few – and America: The Motion Picture is no exception. While the film never overstays its welcome at only 98 minutes, some sections drags a bit and we’re never totally invested in any of the characters beyond a surface level. As much as I believe in the separation of church and state between film and television, I could see America working just as well – if not better – as a continuous series (especially given the pedigree of Thomas and Reed). A seemingly endless world of opportunity could be imagined with the weekly exploits of a dual chainsaw-wielding George Washington and his bros as they navigate the American experiment. The film warrants at least a second viewing, if for no other reason than to check out all the throwaway gags you miss the first time, but it absolutely should not be to learn something new about America.
America: The Motion Picture is now available to stream on Netflix.
About the Writer: Ben Sears is a life-long Indianapolis resident, husband, and father of two boys, as well as a contributing writer on ObsessiveViewer.com and a recurring co-host on The Obsessive Viewer Podcast, and a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. Aside from watching movies and television, Ben enjoys photography and running marathons, but never at the same time. That would be difficult.