This weekend Hollywood is about to make history with The Angry Birds Movie, the first feature film ever to be based on a smartphone app.
The Angry Birds bird-slinging game, made by the Finnish company Rovio, has enjoyed over 3-billion downloads of its various versions since it first launched in 2009, and is the most downloaded game of all time. So it's understandable that the film industry, which makes gazillions of dollars adapting best-selling books like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, would want to branch out and bring a best-selling app to the big screen.
But when I first heard that Angry Birds was being developed into a movie, I was perplexed – and intrigued. How in the hell could this smash-'em-up game be turned into a full-blown movie? My 13-year-old daughter and I both love Angry Birds, but it's so simple. In fact, there's hardly a storyline at all.
For those not familiar with the game, it goes like this:
1. Aim a slingshot that hurls a flightless bird into the sky. 2. Watch the bird crash through a structure and smash the green bug-eyed piggies hiding inside – or miss its mark. 3. Retry until the birds have squashed all of the snorting pigs. 4. Level up.
That's it! No character development, no personalities besides the strange gravelly sounds and chuckles coming from the pigs and the occasional bird caws, no story arc, etc. I wondered how they would flesh this game out. Would these speechless birds and snickering pigs finally have voices? Which of the many different angry bird characters would star in the film? And for gad's sake, why are the birds so damn angry?
Then last month I was invited to Maui to watch a screening of The Angry Birds Movie. First off, let me tell you that if I had not liked the movie, I wouldn't be writing about it. Sony Pictures did send me, along with a bunch of other journalists, to Hawaii and treated us to the movie, as well as a fabulous zip-lining excursion where we flew like angry, er, I mean happy birds. We also had an anger-management yoga class, and ended the 2-day trip with an intimate luau. Had the movie been a rotten egg I would have felt guilty about having such a fantastic time on Sony's nickel, but I would not have written a word about it.
Fortunately, The Angry Birds Movie, directed by Frozen animator Clay Kaytis, is an adorable, upbeat 3D animated movie that had the audience – many of them children – hysterically laughing out loud. In an eggshell, the movie is about a colorful tropical island filled with flightless happy birds. Well, mostly happy. But it's not a complete paradise, as there are a few misfits who have anger management issues. First there's Red (played by Jason Sudeikis) who was teased as a little bird because of his big bushy eyebrows. Now he's irritated by anyone who gets in his way. And then there's hyper-active Chuck (Josh Gad), who has no filters, and Bomb (Danny McBride), who has a case of IED, or intermittent explosive disorder – you never know when he's going to blow up. These three angry-but-loveable misfits become friends as they attend their compulsory anger management courses, led by the mostly sweet (but I can tell she has her own bottled-up anger management issues) Matilda (played by Maya Rudolph).
The plot thickens when the island is invaded by boatloads of green pigs who, to most birdies, seem so nice and friendly. They just want to party! But Red sees something else and tries to warn the happy birds around him. They scold him and blame his anger for his party-pooping delusions. When it's almost too late, the flock of happy birds realizes their mistake, and must depend on angry Red and his misfit friends to save all of the eggs – and the island – from the greedy deceitful pigs before it's too late. The actors do a fabulous job of bringing the characters to life, and the movie is smart, humorous, heart-warming, and engaging for all ages.
After watching The Angry Birds Movie, the biggest takeaway for me was that the movie actually breathed more life into the game. As charming as the movie was, the only thing I could think of when it ended was running back to the hotel room and playing the Angry Birds game. Now that I knew who Red, Chuck, Bomb and Matilda were, I wanted to see if playing the game would be any different. And I have to say, it was different.
In the way that MTV cemented images and storylines to songs, The Angry Birds Movie has cemented a story and personality to the app. What used to be one-dimensional feathered projectiles are now brave heroes on a mission to save their island from the sneaky pigs. The birds now have stories we can relate to and root for. As an Angry Birds player, it's really fun to see how the different aspects of the game now make perfect sense. The slingshot, the eggs, the pigs, the bushy eyebrows, the anger… all of it has a place in the game's story and nothing in the game is left to question.
At the luau I met John Cohen, one of the film's producers (the other being Catherine Winder). Standing near the buffet table of poi and roasted pig (heh heh), I asked Cohen, who also produced Despicable Me, what inspired him to make a movie based on Angry Birds. He said he has always been a huge fan of the game. "I'm proud to admit that I'm even an addict. I spent so much time playing the game that I couldn't help but think about all the possibilities there would be in bringing these characters to life in a story."
Then, Cohen explained that in 2012, he found out that David Maisel, the founder and chairman of Marvel, had approached Rovio and had become a special advisor to explore the idea of turning Angry Birds into a movie. Cohen immediately began calling Maisel and chased Rovio until he convinced them to bring him on board.
I spoke to Cohen again over the phone once I was back in Los Angeles, and we continued our conversation. The thing I found most interesting about this app-turned-movie is that Angry Birds was so fantastically well-known and popular and yet the filmmakers didn't have a plot or story to follow. With so many millions, if not billions of fans, that seems like a lot of pressure.
Cohen agreed. "When you have something that is that well known, it's normally properties like Harry Potter or Spider-Man, where there is already a detailed mythology that's been created and developed with so many fantastic nuances and information about backstories for each of the characters and for the world in which it takes place." But the Angry Birds team had to start from scratch.
In the beginning, Cohen and the folks at Rovio, along with Maisel, who became one of the movie's executive producers, spent months just talking about what the story would be. "In the beginning of the process, we went back to the question that I think Rovio gets asked more often than anything else, which is, "Why are the birds so angry?" We started with that fundamental question and made this movie the origin story of how that strange conflict came to exist between these flightless birds and these cute green piggies."
As far as choosing which characters to feature, Cohen says in 2013 they launched a Toons TV app with cute animated shorts that presented a birds-versus-pigs theme reminiscent of Bugs Bunny or The Roadrunner, except instead of Elmer Fudd or the Coyote doing the hunting, in the Angry Birds cartoons it's green pigs who are always hunting for the birds' eggs. "The characters that we focused on in the movie were the most popular ones in the games and in the Toons."
For those who want to watch The Angry Birds Movie on opening weekend, there's a special bonus and surprise waiting. Download the new Angry Birds Action game and turn it on during the movie's end credits. The sounds coming from the credits will unlock a new area of the game as well as a secret scene from the movie that "is so good, so funny," according to Cohen. "It's a fantastic scene that I can't tell you anything about because it's a surprise. The only way you can see it is if you have your phone with the [Angry Birds Action] app downloaded on it."
Good thing my daughter hasn't seen the movie yet. Gives me an excuse to see the movie for a second time with my iPhone on and ready for any slingshot surprises coming my way.
Carla Sinclair is the co-founder of Boing Boing and the editor-in-chief of Wink Books.