Netflix’s ‘America: The Motion Picture’ Mocks the Founding Fathers’ White Male Privilege
From the minds behind “Archer” and “The Lego Movie” comes this gonzo animated reimagining of U.S. history—featuring Channing Tatum as George Washington. And it’s a hot mess.
Between Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, The Lego Movie, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and The Mitchells vs. the Machines, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s animated track record has been just about spotless—which means it was only a matter of time before they suffered a misstep. Enter America: The Motion Picture, the duo’s latest producing effort, which reimagines the nation’s battle for independence against the British in gonzo absurdist terms. Boasting a great voice cast, a pleasingly muscular, loopy visual style, and a desire to celebrate the country’s core values while playfully critiquing its failures to uphold them, it has all the ingredients of a revisionist-history hit. Yet incapable of generating actual laughs from its crazed premise, it’s a lark that ultimately sounds far better on paper.
Directed by Matt Thompson (Archer) and written by Dave Callaham (Wonder Woman 1984), America: The Motion Picture (on Netflix June 30) opens with the signing of the Declaration of Independence over a game of beer pong. That merriment, alas, is not to last. No sooner has John Hancock put his legendary signature on the document—exclaiming to his good friend Ben Franklin about the British, “These bucktooth fun police can suck it because we’ve done it, boys! We have declared out independence”—than traitorous Benedict Arnold (Andy Samberg) and his redcoat lackeys storm the place, gruesomely assassinating everyone and blowing the building to kingdom come. Having stopped the colonialists from their traitorous mission, Arnold turns his attention to Ford’s Theatre (its logo that of the famed automaker), where he sets his sights on best friends Abraham Lincoln (Will Forte) and George Washington (Channing Tatum), who are there to enjoy a stage performance by the Red, White and Blue Man Group.
This, of course, makes no historical or rational sense, nor does the fact that Arnold promptly reveals himself to be a werewolf and takes a fatal chomp out of Honest Abe’s neck, killing the top-hatted idealist. Washington is heartbroken by this turn of events, not least because Lincoln was the true revolutionary destined to attain liberation for his countrymen, while he’s just a hard-partying lunkhead whose primary characteristic is boasting hidden chainsaws up his sleeves. Is any of this reading as amusing yet? If so, that’s better than it plays on screen, since the proceedings’ boisterousness doesn’t translate into actual cleverness. The only joke is that anything and everything goes (including the Titanic! And I.M. Pei! And Axe Body Spray!), which turns out to be not nearly enough to sustain a 98-minute runtime.
Nonetheless, America: The Motion Picture soldiers on into ever-wilder territory, all of it jokingly cast as “based on actual history.” In the face of Lincoln’s tragic demise—which compels Washington to revisit their old log-cabin hangout, where he rummages through pictures kept in a box labeled “Character Backstory”—the future first president decides that he needs a new team to help give birth to democracy. Following the advice of Martha Washington (Judy Greer), with whom he has ecstatic sex after meeting at Lincoln’s funeral (attended by the likes of Lin-Manuel Miranda, JFK, MLK, FDR, and Teddy Roosevelt), Washington heads to a frat house to enlist the services of Samuel Adams (Jason Mantzoukas), a racist dudebro obsessed with domestic beer. Adams is the proto-red state conservative of Thompson’s film, which walks a fine line between reveling in the Founding Father’s gung-ho entitled machismo and making him the butt of its jokes about white male privilege.
The individuals calling out Sam on his intolerance are three of Washington’s subsequent recruits: Thomas Edison (Olivia Munn), who’s a Chinese woman persecuted for practicing science; Geronimo (Raoul Max Trujillo), a Native American tracker introduced via a sequence modeled after The A-Team; and Blacksmith (Killer Mike), a Black metallurgist eventually tasked with creating a silver bullet to fell Arnold. America: The Motion Picture’s censure of America’s treatment of minorities is of a deliberately modern sort, as is its profane dialogue and anachronistic gags, which range from Washington talking about Netflix passwords (and yet not knowing what a phone is) to horse-loving weirdo Paul Revere (Bobby Moynihan) transforming into a Robocop-ish centaur. Such pop culture shout-outs abound in Thompson’s film, which also channels Star Wars via the figure of King James (Simon Pegg)—a combination of Darth Vader, the Emperor, and Jabba the Hutt who rides around on a hoverboard and plans to create an airborne weapon of mass destruction—and Avengers: Endgame during its rock-‘em-sock-‘em finale.
Those nods feel designed to congratulate young viewers for their franchise-movie acumen, but they hardly qualify as inspired, and the same goes for the material’s self-consciously enlightened attitude about American history. There’s a have-it-both-ways quality to America: The Motion Picture’s handling of its more sensitive subjects, which leaves it in a lame middle ground where the jokes pretend to be pointed but come off as rather toothless—as with a late scene in which Washington goes to Y’All Mart (get it?) to buy AR-15s for his revolution, and then cautions everyone that they’ll have to return the guns once the fighting is over because they’re really dangerous. That’s about as sharp as the countless throwaway bits scattered throughout the film, from a Lincoln-owned mug that reads “Drink N Log,” to a hip-hop sequence in which Revere drag-horse-races against competitors à la The Fast and the Furious, to Geronimo joking to Blacksmith that the only way to get through to white Americans about their privilege is to convey it in the dumbest form possible—namely, a cartoon!
Tatum and his co-stars are game for this ridiculousness, delivering their one-liners (many of which are riffs on Washington and company’s famous proclamations) with suitable gusto. But there’s nothing much going on in America: The Motion Picture except rat-a-tat-tat silliness that isn’t nearly as silly—or as satiric—as it needs to be. By the time “Axel F” plays on the soundtrack (via a recorder), and then an anthropomorphic Big Ben squares off against Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, things have devolved into the sort of dim surrealist nonsense that stoned college kids might concoct while sitting around a dorm room on a hazy Saturday afternoon.