2004’s Team America: World Police was a scathing parody of American action movies, but also a legitimately excellent version of the genre’s tropes at work. While ridiculing the concept of American exceptionalism, writers Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and Pam Brady managed to actually defend America’s role as the biggest dicks in a world filled with assholes.
Netflix’s animated feature America: The Motion Picture, which releases on June 30, feels like an attempt to walk the same line between mockery and actual jingoism. The aggressively anachronistic and ahistorical movie follows George Washington (Channing Tatum) as he tries to avenge the death of his childhood best friend Abraham Lincoln (Will Forte) by fighting the British forces led by Benedict Arnold (Andy Samberg), who is inexplicably a werewolf. That could be a recipe for some goofy fun to watch while highly intoxicated and celebrating the Fourth of July, but any goodwill provided by the concept or cast is utterly squandered by a film that packs in endless references without having anything whatsoever to say.
Washington seeks help from the beer-brewing frat-bro Sam Adams (a waste of Jason Mantzoukas’ oddball humor) and a socially awkward version of Paul Revere who dresses like a knight (Bobby Moynihan). The script, from writer Dave Callaham (Wonder Woman 1984 and Mortal Kombat) repeatedly notes that the founding fathers were white men who really only cared about the interests of other white men. Then it moves on, without any point or punchline. That’s especially true when the guys are recruiting more diverse allies like the expert tracker Geronimo (Raoul Trujillo) or Iron Man-style super-scientist Thomas Edison, who is recast as a Chinese-American woman voiced by Olivia Munn.
The characters of color constantly point out that they’re likely to get a raw deal from Washington and Adams, who regularly make racist and sexist remarks. But they shrug those doubts off, because those guys are supposed to be lovable idiots, and their enemy King James (Simon Pegg) is worse — he’s basically Dune’s Baron Harkonnen with a scheme to turn the entire world into tea-loving Brits with bad teeth. Callahan tries to mock backstory dumps with overt lampshading, but later, he has Jefferson explain she wants to win the war to show everyone what science is capable of. No one brings up that the British Empire seems to be entirely powered by super-science, while the guys she’s working with call her a witch.
Archer director Matt Thompson helmed America: The Motion Picture, and the movie makes it clear how much more important Archer creator and writer Adam Reed is to the FX show’s success. At first glance, Archer — an arrogant spy and James Bond parody — seems similar to Tatum’s portrayal of Washington as a tough, brooding action hero, but while Archer’s characters regularly make the dumbest decisions possible, the writing is extremely smart. The world follows its own bizarre logic, and the whole cast is so disagreeable and self-absorbed that viewers don’t have to feel bad for anyone. Callahan seems to genuinely want the founding fathers to be flawed but relatable heroes, but they just come off as jerks who no one should work with.
America: The Motion Picture delivers only the shallowest surface version of parody, as characters point out the ludicrously escalating stakes of the conflict, or that their story is following a classic three-act structure. It’s equally full of obvious references to the films America: The Motion Picture is ostensibly mocking. But there’s nothing really witty or funny happening. Without even a pretense of internal logic to justify those references, the film feels like a Family Guy version of Ready Player One.
An early scene where Washington watches Lincoln die in ludicrous spurts of blood resembles the protracted vomiting scene of Team America, or any number of Family Guy gags that go on for so long that they get boring and then become funny again. But Callahan and Thompson don’t seem to understand that those bits work because of the rapid pacing of what comes before and after. America: The Motion Picture is filled with gags that never land and then overstay their welcome, like a protracted hacking sequence where Washington must figure out where in Gettysburg the British are hiding — that is, he needs to find the Gettysburg address.
When the humor isn’t relentlessly bland, it’s offensive. Arnold’s declaration that he’s switched sides prompts an extended sequence where he has to awkwardly convince Lincoln and Washington that he’s isn’t coming out as gay. Buxom blonde Martha Washington (Judy Greer) isn’t a parody of action-movie love interests whose sole role is to have sex with the hero and then inevitably motivate him by being kidnapped by a gross bad guy — everything about those tropes is effectively played straight. Over and over again, Callahan references the things wrong with Hollywood blockbusters and American society and then just moves on, as if the tiniest bit of self-awareness provides humor or a point.
There isn’t even much visually compelling about the film, which uses a blocky style similar to The Venture Bros. — the only similarity America: The Motion Picture bears to that much better work of action parody. America’s artwork is worse, though, thanks to a weird effect that makes the lines in all the characters’ chiseled jaws and bulging muscles glow in distracting ways. Even novel animations like a bloodthirsty soccer ball named Manchester just feel like gimmicks without purpose.
The war over “critical race theory” in schools is leading Americans to examine the stories we tell about our country. Independence Day is a celebration of the creation of a better political system, and it can also be an opportunity to take stock of how we can continue to improve as a society. Even for audiences who aren’t feeling introspective, July 4 can be a good time to enjoy the best of what America can offer, including entertaining action movies. America: The Motion Picture tries to provide a little of both, and delivers neither. Like a dud firework, it’s meant to provide a quick rush of spectacle, and it’s just a disappointment.
America: The Motion Picture is now streaming on Netflix.