America: The Motion Picture relies on one-tone jokes about the past as opposed to offering humorous commentary on the American Revolution.
Wouldn’t it be cool if the American Revolution had a lot of swearing and pop culture references? That’s roughly as far as the makers of the animated comedy America: The Motion Picture have considered the premise of their film. Overall, that raunchy approach runs about five minutes into the 98-minute film. Despite using some of the voices of celebrities and recognizable characters, the film lacks coherent and witty writing.
Instead of recruiting writer Archer, who is familiar with satirical and crude comedy, the screenplay is from Dave Callaham. Known for his work on blockbuster action films including The Expendables and Wonder Woman 1984, Callaham does a lot of action, but his sense of humor is youthful — especially compared to Archer’s sophisticated wit and layered approach. The parody elements of America: The Motion Picture are barely a step above the notorious con artists Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer.
America: The Motion Picture opens at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which has been redesigned to take its place over beer pong. The moment of victory is interrupted by the notorious traitor Benedict Arnold (Andy Samberg), who massacres all the Founding Fathers present and destroys the document. Arnold conspires with King James (Simon Pegg) of Great Britain to quell a colonial rebellion and appears to have succeeded.
Fortunately, one of the Founding Fathers was not present at the signing. George Washington (Channing Tatum) instead heads out to the theater with his best friend Abraham Lincoln (Will Forte) — one of several historical figures to be included in the story. They are at the Red, White, and Blue Man Group show, when Arnold appears, transforms into a werewolf and kills Lincoln, who fulfilled his historical destiny of being killed in the theater.
Saddened by his friend’s death, Washington vows to take on the revolutionary cause Lincoln believes in and he forms an Avengers-style team to confront Arnold, King James, and the British army. The team includes Sam Adams (Jason Mantzoukas), a brewing brother with racist ideals; Paul Revere (Bobby Moynihan), a strange loner whose only friend is his horse; Thomas Edison (Olivia Munn), a Chinese immigrant with a scientific arsenal that rivals Iron Man; and Geronimo (Raoul Max Trujillo from MC Maya), a Native American tracker and criminal fugitive.
What follows is plenty of raunchy violence and humor, all of which seem designed primarily for shock value; but nothing surprising about the things fifth graders might scribble in their American History textbooks. The gag error is simply mentioning the existence of something to make a funny observation. When he arrives in America, King James travels on the Titanic and talks like Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars, but there’s no joke there other than that filmmakers and viewers are familiar with Titanic and Star Wars.
Throughout the rest of the film, there are weak puns like the theater showing Our American Cousin Vinny, random references to pop culture figures ranging from the obvious — like John Wick or The A-Team — to the fairly obscure — Jason Film. Statham Transporter. Just making references is enough for Callaham and Thompson to expect laughter, and celebrity voice actors often repeat jokes to no avail. The only truly funny part of the film involves King James’s plan to use a specially modified tea to turn the whole world into England, but even the jokes go far beyond his limited capacity for humor.
Created in a similar animation style to Archer, Thompson features distinctive-looking characters and delivers massive action sequences with just the right amount of scale and intensity. If America: The Motion Picture was the kind of live-action film Callaham wrote in the past, the visuals would have no trouble conveying the scope and complexity of the combat. The character designs are also effective, striking a balance between the old images of historical figures and the exaggerated blockbuster action heroes the film demands. The American version of Thomas Edison: The Motion Picture wouldn’t be out of place in a straighter steampunk adventure.
That’s not what the film is about, however, and instead of embarking on an exciting adventure, the characters repeat the same crazy slogans — like calling Brits “fun cops.” Callaham and Thompson make occasional attempts at historical revisionist social commentary, but America: The Motion Picture isn’t Hamilton. Nothing here could be considered satire. As far as faux-patriotic animated adult films go, Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Team America: World Police are still much sharper and funnier.
Starring the voices of Channing Tatum, Jason Mantzoukas, Olivia Munn, Andy Samberg, Simon Pegg, Raoul Max Trujillo, Bobby Moynihan, Judy Greer, Killer Mike, and Will Forte, America: The Motion Picture is now streaming on Netflix.