Reimagining the founding of America as a bro-fest that takes every historic moment from the last 250 or so years and crams them together, forgoing any sense of temporal progression or reason, Matt Thompson’s animated film“America: The Motion Picture,” now on Netflix, is an occasionally funny, but ultimately overlong slog that never really is as clever as it thinks it is. Foregrounding a friendship between muscle-bound idiot George Washington (Channing Tatum) and level-headed revolutionary Abraham Lincoln (Will Forte), Thompson’s film adapts a see-what-sticks approach, throwing out a joke every few seconds, some of which are entertaining enough, but still, leave the film’s batting average well below .500.
Shoving Washington and Lincoln together is an odd, if inspired choice, but Dave Callaham’s script quickly kills off Lincoln, not by John Wilkes Booth, but instead by a werewolf Benedict Arnold (Andy Samberg), who becomes the de facto villain. Washington is quickly forced to assemble a team, Avengers-style, including Sam Adams (Jason Mantzoukas), Paul Revere (Bobby Moynihan), Geronimo (Raoul Trujillo), Thomas Edison (Olivia Munn), and John Henry (Killer Mike). From there, it’s several sight gags and anachronistic details – King James, not King George III, sails over on the Titanic, the group is forced to fight a complicated brawl in a bar called Vietnam, etc. More than once, Callaham and Thompson fall back on introducing a modern idea – cars, machine guns, beer – only for a character to call out that they have no idea what the word means. What ends up being mildly amusing the first time is beaten to death by the film’s end.
Much like his work on the long-running “Archer,” which lampoons the spy genre, Thompson reworks the superhero team-up, riffing mainly on “the Avengers,” but also including send-ups to everything from “Robocop” to “Swordfish,” as the group works to thwart Arnold and the British forces. But, more than anything, the plot is an excuse to throw as many jokes as possible at the audience, hoping that some will land. Occasionally, they do, including an impressive one that reimagines the national anthem as Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird,” or how guns went from a revolutionary necessity to a cultural flashpoint of partisan bickering.
With a loaded voice cast, the obvious standout is Mantzoukas, who reimagines Sam Adams as a beer brewing frat leader, who is quick to violent outbursts and the occasional racist joke. Similarly, casting Munn as Edison, a Chinese woman who confounds the rest of the group, is a great idea that gets plenty of mileage, as she uses ‘science’ to essentially become the group’s Iron Man. Tatum’s Washington, who is occasionally haunted by the ghost of Lincoln, proves to be a simplistic leader, completely out of his depth in trying to create a new country. On the other side, Samberg’s Arnold and Simon Pegg’s King James are having fun playing up the offensively Britishness of their side – including a pretty amusing sight gag with a giant tea bag.
Yet “America: The Motion Picture” only works in fits and starts, more a series of discrete parodies than coherent film. While some of these moments are amusing, and occasionally laugh out loud funny, most are only mildly entertaining. That may be enough for the target audience – seemingly middle to high school boys who need a few more dick jokes in their history textbooks – but, for everyone else, the amount of actually funny material cannot compensate for a bloated runtime of 98 minutes, which feels a lot longer than it should. [C-]