Many of the comedies of 2016 haven’t been nearly as funny in the theater as they apparently were on set. Going off script into improv land has been all the rage of late, and while that can lead to some hilarious in-the-moment moments, it’s not a practice that’s good for actual storytelling. As entertaining as a spontaneous line or bit of business can be, they’re rarely as funny as a well-crafted gag, particularly one that’s allowed to build over the course of a movie.
Nothing about the marketing campaign of “Storks” suggested that it was going to be the movie to give the three-act comedy a good name, but the script by Nicholas Stoller (“The Muppets,” “The Five-Year Engagement”) jabs at your funny bone and at your gooey sentimental center with equal agility, both by following the rules and knowing when to throw them out the window.
Our hero stork is Junior (voiced by Andy Samberg), who’s got an unparalleled skill at delivering what storks deliver: personal electronics. They actually got out of the baby business 18 years ago, when Jasper (Danny Trejo) grew too attached to newborn Tulip, accidentally breaking the gizmo containing her family’s address. Now the storks provide their services to internet retail giant Cornerstore.com, a business that’s successful as long as grown-up Tulip (comedian Katie Crown) isn’t trying to “help” with her clumsiness and dangerous inventions.
Boss bird Hunter (Kelsey Grammer) tells Junior he’s about to move up the corporate ladder, as long as he fires Tulip and sends her back to the world of humans, now that she’s of age. Unable to do so, Junior instead moves her to the nearly-defunct Letters bureau in an attempt to keep her out of trouble. Cue a letter from young Nate (Anton Starkman, “American Horror Story”), who wants a baby brother since his realtor parents (Ty Burrell and Jennifer Aniston) pay more attention to their jobs than to him.
Nate’s letter produces the factory’s first baby in ages, and it’s up to Junior and Tulip to deliver him before Hunter and office suck-up Pigeon Toady (Stephen Kramer Glickman, “Big Time Rush”) find out about it. Other obstacles include a hungry and surprisingly well-organized wolf pack (run by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele), some of the most soulless penguins since “The Wrong Trousers,” and the ever-lurking Jasper.
Starting with the fact that Junior isn’t the usual reluctant hero we get in these films — he’s rather cravenly trying to defend a promotion that he can’t even explain why he wants — “Storks” continually surprises with characters who are more complicated than we might expect in a kid’s animated movie, and a refusal to hit every single pre-programmed plot beat. The climactic big-villain showdown ends nearly as quickly as it begins, and it contains some really great payoffs from seemingly throwaway gags early on. That last act also has a great throw-down that has to be very quiet because — shhh! — the baby’s sleeping.
It no doubt helps that the film has such an interesting array of talent behind it; besides Stoller (who co-directed with Pixar veteran Doug Sweetland), the executive producers include Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (“Bad Santa,” “I Love You Phillip Morris”) and Phil Lord and Chris Miller (“22 Jump Street,” “The Lego Movie”), all of whom know a thing or two about turning audience expectation on its ear. (“Storks” even includes a fleeting acknowledgment that babies can be raised by a mom and dad, or one mom or one dad, or two moms, or two dads.)
Warner Bros. may have some catching up to do in re-establishing itself as an animated powerhouse, but “Storks” gave me some of the biggest laughs of any film so far this year, cartoon or live-action. It’s a worthy addition to the house Bugs and Daffy built.